Novo Nordisk quits South African pharma group over 'satanic' PR campaign

Is an anti-anti-anti-intellectual property movement brewing? First, South Africa proposed patent-law changes that would help foster generic drugs. Then, Big Pharma and its smaller colleagues in the country's pharma association hatched a counter-offensive: a $600,000 lobbying campaign against the measure.

Now, Novo Nordisk ($NVO) has quit that group, the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association of South Africa (Ipasa), in protest.

"Novo Nordisk resigned from Ipasa last week (due to) disagreement on a public relations campaign proposed by Ipasa, which we felt did not serve our or the industry's interests," spokeswoman Shelley Harris told the South African publication Business Day.

Novo Nordisk may have jumped ship just in time. The Ipasa PR strategy, cooked up by Washington, D.C.-based Public Affairs Engagement, has all the makings of a scandal. It certainly has spawned some fevered rhetoric: When the news broke last week, opponents accused drugmakers of a "satanic plot" to keep affordable drugs out of patients' hands.

South Africa's patent proposal is not unlike a provision in India's intellectual property law designed to block "evergreening," or the granting of new patents on small tweaks in a drug's formula. That provision kept Novartis from patent protection for its leukemia drug Glivec (also known as Gleevec), in a high-profile legal battle that went all the way to the Indian Supreme Court.

Tightening up on patents allows cheaper copies of drugs to hit the market sooner. In South Africa's case, the proposal is designed to help foster a generics industry and, in the process, save the government money on drugs.

Branded drugmakers make their bread with patent protections, of course. But the lobbying effort proposed by Ipasa threatens to fracture the industry, Business Day says; Novo Nordisk isn't the only company opposed to the campaign. One point of contention: The plan included a new South African organization to lobby against the patent rules. It would have masqueraded as a local group, but would be run from the U.S. Indeed, the U.S.-based PhRMA organization helped Ipasa recruit Public Affairs Engagement to the task, the publication reports.

Ipasa is scrambling to contain the damage, and that includes pleading with Novo Nordisk to stay. "I will meet the CEO next week to get an understanding of their position," Ipasa's Val Beaumont wrote to Business Day. "Our hope would be that we do not lose a valued and respected member."

South Africa is the continent's leading pharma market and one of the faster-growing markets in the world. But with HIV a still-growing problem, and budgets tight, the government has had trouble opening access to treatment to its poorest citizens. Doctors Without Borders has gone so far as to propose that South Africa adopt India's compulsory licensing strategy. That's something multinational drugmakers wouldn't want to see. Accepting the proposed patent limits could be Big Pharma's lesser of two evils.

- read the Business Day story

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