South Africa: Public opinion forces 'Big Pharma' to back down

© C. Schwetz Thirtynine pharmaceutical companies took the South African government to court over a law intended to protect public health. This caused public outrage worldwide. Support for the South African government poured in, and the companies unanimously dropped the case in April 2001. Six months on, still only a fraction of the country's AIDS patients are receiving the necesssary treatment.
In 1997, the South African government passed the "Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act", a law intended to make medicines more affordable through mechanisms which included allowing parallel importation, enforcing generic substitution, and price controls. Objecting to many of the provisions included in the Act, 39 pharmaceutical companies filed suit to block the legislation from coming into force. Their claim that the legislation was unconstitutional and in violation of South Africa's commitments under the WTO's TRIPS Agreement was immediately countered by a public outcry at the pharmaceutical industry's desire to put profits before poor people's lives. The companies were also criticised for being opposed to provisions in the South African law already in use elsewhere in the world. Public protests centred around access to antiretroviral treatment: the cost of patented medicines was at the time the main obstacle to bringing life-saving treatment to South Africa's 4.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS. 300,000 people from more than 130 countries signed an international petition launched by MSF calling on the companies to drop the case. The European Parliament passed a resolution urging the companies to drop the case, a position echoed by ministers from a number of European governments. Finally, on 19 April 2001, yielding to the powerful combination of public pressure, solid legal argumentation, and government resolve, the 39 pharmaceutical companies announced they were unconditionally dropping the lawsuit. An MSF programme in Khayelitsha, a township outside Cape Town, recently became the first and only project to distribute antiretrovirals in government primary health care facilities in South Africa.