May 18, 2020 | Access to Medicines, COVID-19


South Africa’s patent laws threaten access to future COVID-19 medicines


Lotti Rutter (Health GAP) | | +27 82 065 5842

Ntsiki Mpulo (SECTION27) | | +27 82 782 7143

Ngqabutho Mpofu (TAC) | | +27 72 225 9675


(Johannesburg) — In a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa published today, the Fix the Patent Laws (FTPL) coalition outlined major concerns about South Africa’s ability to access future treatments or vaccines for COVID-19. They point out that the country’s outdated patent laws ensure that when effective treatments become available, they will likely be too expensive and remain inaccessible to those in need.


Made up of 40 patient groups and civil society organisations, the FTPL coalition wrote to President Ramaphosa in both his capacity as President of South Africa and Chairperson of the National Command Council on COVID-19. The letter highlighted the pandemic has seen an unprecedented scale and speed of research and development (R&D) to find diagnostics, treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19. However, the coalition also pointed out that unless treatments actually get into the hands of the people who need them, and a vaccine is widely rolled out to prevent further infection, this R&D will not help us.


“The country is rightly in a national state of disaster, responding to COVID-19. However, if we do not also fix our patent laws to ensure that people can access new treatments or vaccines after they are proven effective, we will find ourselves in a second emergency. It will mean that far more people will continue to get sick with COVID-19 and possibly die,” said Sibongile Tshabalala, from the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). “We lost thousands of comrades and friends because they couldn’t access the HIV medicines they needed due to high prices driven by unwarranted patent monopolies. Let us not make the same mistake again.”


Two years ago, Cabinet adopted the South African Policy on Intellectual Property, Phase 1, that contained important commitments to reform the country’s patent laws to prioritise people’s constitutionally guaranteed right of access to healthcare services. It paves the way for a new, progressive intellectual property regime in South Africa, almost two decades after the signing of the Doha Declaration on Public Health—a critical international agreement confirming countries’ ability to amend their laws to incorporate pro-public health safeguards.


“The time is now to finalise the patent law reform process—we cannot wait any longer. The draft legislation, primarily the amendments to the Patents Act, should be released for public comment immediately and quickly promulgated into law. The IP Policy recommended multiple reforms to the law aimed at protecting public health. This is needed now more than ever to address the COVID- 19 pandemic and to ensure that everyone has equal access to diagnostics, treatments and vaccines, when they become available,” said Umunyana Rugege, from SECTION27.


Other countries have long ago incorporated these public health safeguards into national law. Some countries like Brazil, Spain, Israel, Germany and Canada are now taking steps to override patents and other exclusive rights in anticipation of ensuring the accessibility of future COVID-19-related health products—including diagnostics, vaccines, treatments, medical devices, and personal protective equipment. Not only will these steps allow countries to avoid high prices, they will also allow countries to expand sources of supply, including through domestic manufacturing to help overcome preferential access and hoarding by rich countries to lifesaving COVID-19 health products.


The FTPL coalition letter urged the government to follow this progressive path by putting in place a temporary moratorium on the issuance of patents on all COVID-19-related health products, and instituting an automatic compulsory licensing mechanism to ensure access to products that have already been granted patents, or that are pending.


“Whilst COVID-19 highlights the urgency of securing affordable access to medicines and vaccines, this is only one disease amongst many. People across the country suffering from diseases ranging from cancer and TB, to epilepsy, to mental illness are all affected by similar access problems as a result of patent barriers. It is the widespread nature of this issue that makes the finalising of patent law reforms all the more urgent,” said Lotti Rutter, from Health GAP.




Fix the Patent Laws is a joint coalition made up of 40 organisations including: the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Doctors Without Borders (MSF), SECTION27, Cape Mental Health (CMH), Diabetes SA, Epilepsy SA, Health Global Access Project (Health GAP), Marie Stopes South Africa, the Stop Stock Outs Project (SSP), the Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorders Alliance (SABDA), the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), the South African Federation of Mental Health (SAFMH), the South African Non-Communicable Diseases Alliance (SANCD Alliance) and the Cancer Alliance including: Advocates for Breast Cancer, amaBele Project Flamingo, Ari’s Cancer Foundation, Breast Course 4 Nurses (BCN), Breast Health Foundation (BHF), Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), Cancer Heroes, CanSurvive Cancer Support (CanSurvive), Care for Cancer Foundation, Childhood Cancer Foundation of South Africa (CHOC), Gladiators of Hope, Hospice Palliative Care Association (HPCA), Lymphoedema Association of South Africa (LAOSA), Look Good Feel Better (LGFB), Love Your Nuts (LYN), Men’s Foundation, National Council Against Smoking, National Oncology Nursing Society of SA (NONSA), People Living With Cancer (PLWC), the Pink Parasol Project, Pink Trees for Pauline (Pink Trees), Rainbows and Smiles, Reach for Recovery (R4R), South African Oncology Social Workers’ Forum (SAOSWF), The Sunflower Fund (TSF), and Wings of Hope (WoH).