CIVIL society activists and other national and regional groups have made a clarion call on the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (Aripo) to increase access to affordable medicines in Zimbabwe through amendment of the Harare Protocol on industrial property.
BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
The stakeholders, who include those from the Health Global Access Project (Gap), accused the Aripo secretariat of prioritising collection of patent fees on unworthy patents instead of ensuring the right of access to affordable medicines for all.
Patents on medicines give patent holders the exclusive right to make, sell and import medicines and to charge whatever high price will maximize profits. For a low-resourced country like Zimbabwe, steeped in a myriad of economic challenges, it means that patients will go without treatment because neither they nor the government can pay.
“Every single patent on medicines for HIV, TB, cancer, and hepatitis C in Zimbabwe was granted by means of the African Region Intellectual Property Office rather than Zimbabwe national patent office. And virtually every medicine also has multiple patents granted by Aripo that extend the total length of monopoly protection beyond the original 20-year patent term,” Brook Baker, Health Global Access Project senior policy analyst, told NewsDay last week.
The activists also said Aripo is not taking full advantage of all flexibilities allowed under international law to accelerate generic competition.
“We have submitted detailed critiques of the Harare Protocol and of national legislation that has not yet incorporated life-saving flexibilities. Unfortunately, the Aripo secretariat seems to prioritise collecting patent fees on unworthy patents (as opposed) to ensuring the right of access to affordable medicines for all,” the said.
The groups also said the regional body had persistently refused to invite civil society to their meetings despite having promised to do so.
“Take bedaquiline, an important new medicine to treat multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, as an example. The first patent on the base compound of bedaquiline was filed in 2003 and expires in 2023. However, additional patents have been filed for bedaquiline’s specific use in treating TB and for a well-known salt form of bedaquiline combined with a well-known wetting agent.
“These weak secondary ‘evergreening’ patents don’t expire until 2025 and 2027, meaning that Zimbabwean patients have to pay whatever Johnson & Johnson wants to charge. Johnson & Johnson claims that its best ‘special effort’ price is $2 a pill or $400 for a six-month course of treatment,” he said.
Baker also questioned if many patients, whose lives are threatened by TB can afford that, particularly since bedaquiline must be combined with other expensive new TB drugs for effective treatment
This is despite research estimates which have claimed that generic companies could sell the same medicine profitably for as little as $0,25 a day — an eighth of the price.
Unfortunately, because of Aripo’s lax patent examination that routinely grants unwarranted primary and secondary patents, Zimbabwean patients will have to wait four extra years for generic competition and lower prices.
Meanwhile, civil society activists throughout the 18-country Aripo region are calling on their governments to prioritise public health and to put pressure on Aripo to rebalance the Harare Protocol to protect the right to health.
“Pharmaceutical patents should be excluded for least-developed country Aripo members, Aripo should examine patent applications stringently and reject secondary patent claims, and interested persons should also be permitted to oppose the grant of patents,” Baker said.
“The public in Zimbabwe and the officials in the health department should insist that the government protects their rights by demanding needed reforms at Aripo. If they do so, thousands of lives can be saved.”