South African activist unveils campaign to force compulsory licences

Graham McKerrow, HIV i-Base

A treatment activist used a pre-conference satellite meeting in Barcelona to announce a campaign in the South African courts to force the introduction of compulsory licences to allow the local production of generic versions of antiretrovirals.

Sipho Mthathi of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) said that “in the next few months” they would initiate litigation to force the introduction of compulsory licences “so our government can buy treatment more cheaply.”

The legal action would follow TAC’s triumph a few days before the conference when the South African Constitutional Court instructed the government to provide treatment to pregnant women to help combat vertical transmission of the virus.

Compulsory licences are granted by national authorities, without or against the will of the title-holder, to allow the production of generic versions of drugs that would otherwise be protected by patents or other intellectual property rights.

Announcing the planned litigation, Mthathi added: “I am sure the pharmaceutical companies will be interested to learn about this!”

He said that treatment was “a right, not a favour” and called for “a strong Africanist movement” to advocate treatment in Africa. A pan-African conference in September would work out regional strategies to ensure access to essential medicines, he told the meeting.

Mthathi called for increased pressure on African governments to include HIV treatment in the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) “because there will be no development if Africa does not deal effectively with HIV/AIDS.”

The session, hosted by Médecins Sans Frontières and Health GAP (Global Access Project), heard about the success of litigation in other countries where governments have been forced to provide treatment for their citizens.

Erickson Chiclayo of Gente Positivo in Guatemala and the Network of Positive People Living in Central America, said there had been legal actions against governments, ministers of health and presidents, in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Costa Rica “and thanks to these actions people are getting treatment now”.

“We have also carried out actions like closing streets to pressure for treatment for people with HIV,” he said. Action against the minister of health in Guatemala was stopped after the government agreed to treat 27 people. Since then, they have initiated legal action against the president of the country.

Chiclayo said that despite some success they still had a long way to go. He reported that in Belize 20 people were being treated out of the 400 who needed antiretroviral therapy. In Honduras, 400 were receiving ART, while 5,000 needed treatment. In Guatemala 1,600 were treated while 4,000 needed it and in El Salvador 500 people were on treatment while 4,000 needed it.

A speaker from Brazil said his country was often held up as an example of how a low-income country could treat its positive citizens with antriretrovirals, “but it is not an example because the government decided to do something,” he said. “It is an example because we pressured them into doing something.”

In response to the move by some pharmaceutical companies to give free or cheap drugs under certain conditions to a handful of countries, he said: “We don’t want donations. We don’t want gifts. We need treatment on a permanent basis.”

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