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How pharmaceutical companies blocked cheap generic medicines in South Africa – and why that’s set to change

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Health minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, has stated that proposed changes to the Intellectual Property Policy will do away with prolonged patents and open up the pharmaceuticals sector for more affordable generics to be manufactured.

Speaking at a media event on Thursday (31 May), Motsoaledi said that the proposed changes to the policy will do away with companies that use loopholes to extend patents on drugs by decades.

According to the current Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), signed in 1995, pharmaceutical companies were given room to register patents on drugs they researched and manufactured for a 20-year period. Thereafter, the research is meant to be made public for other companies to use.

However, the flexibilities that were agreed upon left room for abuse, as companies would partially modify their drug and register them as a new patent, explained Motsoaledi.

“Now the problem is that at the expiry of the 20 years, instead of generics flowing and drugs getting cheaper, the companies do what is called ‘evergreening’, which means you take the drug, change one molecule and apply for a patent as a new drug and you are given another 20 years,” he said.

Effectively this meant that the ’20 year period’ never came to and end and continued forever. However this new policy is set to change this practice, Motsoaledi said.

“This policy brings that to an end because through substantive examinations, we will be able to tell a company that there is not substantive change on the drug – it is still the same drug that has been there for 20 years,” he said.

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