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Drug giants drop suit against South African drug law
Thirty-nine international drug companies have withdrawn their challenge to a South African law that many say will allow the government there to import or produce generic versions of patented drugs. The companies deny that intense pressure from international activists led to their change of heart on Apr. 19. Critics argued that the companies were putting profits ahead of the lives of some 26 million Africans living with HIV.
This marks the first time manufacturers have legally challenged the right of a developing country to secure access to sustainable supplies of generic drugs "in certain circumstances so as to protect the health of the public." Other countries will likely follow South Africa's lead. Brazil is threatening to grant licences to local manufacturers on patents for AIDS drugs held by Merck Frosst Ltd. and Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd.
The drug companies, including Roche, Merck Frosst and GlaxoSmith-Kline, had been fighting the proposed South African legislation for 3 years, saying it would override patents by allowing the government to import or manufacture low-cost generic products.
But even the least expensive drug cocktail costs US$1 day, putting it beyond the reach of many of the 4.7 million South Africans living with HIV, said Dr. Ayanda Ntsaluba, director general of the Department of Health. In addition, the country does not have the necessary health infrastructure to provide safe monitoring of the treatment.
After the agreement to withdraw the suit was announced, the World Health Organization said the case will encourage a common understanding of how World Trade Organization agreements can be implemented to help promote public health goals.
WHO has offered to help the South African government ensure that HIV-related medicines are made available to all who need them. Barbara Sibbald, CMAJ