PRETORIA– Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi says the South African government is proposing changes to the Intellectual Property Policy to scrap prolonged patents and open up the pharmaceuticals sector for more affordable generic drugs to be manufactured.

Matsoaledi, together with Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, briefed the media here Thursday on the first phase of the Intellectual Property Policy which will, among other things, pave the way for the introduction of substantive search and examination of patents to prevent companies using loopholes to extend patents on drugs by decades and in the process, stop other manufacturers from accessing their research knowledge to manufacture the same drug and sell it at a lower price.

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

Motsoaledi said the new proposals to the policy will mark a new dawn in the pharmaceuticals sector. With extraordinarily expensive pharmaceuticals ….. we might find a solution, especially with the issue of the substantive search and examination for patents,” he added.

Most health activists have been complaining about this issue. When the TRIPS flexibilities were agreed upon in 1995 in Doha, it was agreed that all the companies that manufacture originator drugs through research are given a 20-year patent period, meaning after 20 years, everybody who has the skill could manufacture a similar drug. That drug has to be [labelled] a generic.

Generics and originator drugs are exactly the same thing chemically. It is just that they are manufactured by different people.”

The flexibilities which were agreed upon left room for abuse, as companies would partially modify their drugs and register them as a new patent.

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] drug, change one molecule and apply for a patent as a new drug and you are given another 20 years. So the 20- year period will not come to an end … it is forever (sic).

The new policy would change this practice. 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.