South Africa follows India's lead with proposed drug-patent reforms

India's patent regime already has one imitator. South Africa plans to revamp its intellectual property laws to make it more difficult for pharma companies to win protection for new versions of older drugs. The move comes soon after India's top court backed strict requirements for drug patents.

Public health groups, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), have been urging South Africa to follow India's lead in reforming patent laws. The country has a sizable population of HIV-positive patients who would benefit from low-cost treatments. A top government official told Reuters that the changes would speed cheap generics to market and keep drugmakers from milking their older products for profits.

"We have a policy position that says 'Let us have a strong system that does not grant easy patents,'" the Department of Trade and Industry's MacDonald Netshitenzhe told the news service. "Because if you grant easy patents, a weak patent, there will be people that take it a little bit forward and claim an extension on the original patent."

After the Indian ruling, which denied Novartis ($NVS) a patent on Glivec, a leukemia treatment, access-to-medicines advocates recommended that other countries take steps to limit market exclusivity on drugs. MSF officials suggested that emerging markets such as Brazil and China use compulsory licenses to bypass pharma patents. Public health groups were already urging Greece to do the same, at a time when branded drugs are scarce because of economic turmoil and parallel trade.

In South Africa, Glivec won a patent back in 1993 that expires this month, an MSF official told Reuters. Since then, the government has granted secondary patents to extend market exclusivity on the pricey drug to 2022. That's an example of the patent approach that needs to change, MSF's Julia Hill said. "South Africans are missing out on affordable versions of life-saving medicines because generic competition is blocked by frivolous patents that prevent or delay generic competition," she said.

- read the Reuters news