Big Pharma accused of hatching 'satanic plot' in South Africa

The pharma industry has been called lots of names and accused of many nefarious actions, but not often is it tagged with launching "a conspiracy of satanic magnitude" that would lead to "genocide." Those were the words of South Africa's Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, who lashed out on Friday at a report that Big Pharma is funding a PR campaign aimed at turning the tide against new patent provisions favoring generic drugs.

According to a leaked document seen by Reuters, the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association South Africa (IPASA) is considering putting up $600,000 to mobilize against new laws that would tighten up the country's "evergreening" provision that keeps patents in place on small changes to drugs. Members of IPASA include companies like Sanofi ($SNY), Baxter International ($BAX), Pfizer ($PFE) and Novartis ($NVS).

The government wants to get more generic drugs to market to reduce its healthcare costs. The changes would also favor domestic drugmakers like Aspen Pharmacare and Adcock Ingram. Healthcare advocates in South Africa contend that up to now, the government didn't even examine patent applications. It just handed them out, allowing drugmakers to get a number of patents on the same drug and preventing a generic industry from getting a foothold that would make medicine more affordable.

The proposed campaign, formulated by U.S. consultant Public Affairs Engagement, suggests the group push for a delay of the new laws until elections in May, Reuters reports. The plan is to convince lawmakers that voting for the changes would be politically damaging. IPASA spokeswoman Val Beaumont acknowledged the document was for real but told the news service it represents a proposal that IPASA has not yet approved. "No part of those proposals have been accepted. No part of that document has been implemented," she told Reuters.

Big Pharma has been fighting intellectual battles around the world, particularly in India and China, as other governments look for ways to lower healthcare costs. China, for example, last year canceled the patent on Gilead Sciences' ($GILD) popular HIV and hepatitis B drug Viread (tenofovir) on a challenge from a generic drugmaker. The move was expected to cut the price of the drug in half. Those kinds of moves have made drugmakers flinch at any mention of patent law changes. South Africa is not a huge market, but it is one of those emerging markets that drugmakers have been turning to as growth in developed markets has slowed.

Now that the document has been publicized, Reuters notes that the industry group may very well drop the plan. Motsoaledi didn't mince words about what he thinks of the campaign. He said, "This document can sentence many South Africans to death. This is a plan for genocide."

- read the Reuters story