Doctors Without Borders explains that the South African government should follow the lead of its BRICS peers to make life-saving medications affordable.
Speaking in Johannesburg, MSF South Africa media liaison officer Kate Ribet said other BRICS countries have fulfilled the commitments they made in July 2011 to enact public health safeguards spelled out in World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements.
"Decisive moves by Brazil, India and China have saved hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and dramatically increased access to medicine by bringing down prices," Xinhua quoted Ribet as saying.
"South Africa lags far behind because it still grants and protects patent monopolies of pharmaceutical companies, at the expense of South Africans' health," she added.
MSF said South Africa's patent system currently allows for patent protection of pharmaceuticals additional to WTO 20-year requirements, and does not take advantage of flexibilities for protecting health, like overriding patents with a compulsory license (CL) when drugs are priced out of reach for those in need.
In India, a CL on cancer drug sorafenib was upheld earlier this month, making generic sorafenib available in India for $1 per 200 mg tablet, 97 percent less than the brand name product.
"In South Africa, where no generic versions of this medicine are available, patients must pay 203.50 rands (about $2.2) for the same tablet," Ribet said.
MSF said when Brazil issued a CL on the widely-used antiretroviral efavirenz in 2007, the switch to a generic saved the Brazilian government an estimated $103.5 million in treating HIV/AIDS from 2007-2011.
According to the group, Pretoria has never issued a CL, despite being a major purchaser of antiretroviral drugs and TB treatment. This is partly due to outdated laws.
By protecting poor-quality patent monopolies of pharmaceutical companies, South Africa cannot obtain more affordable generic medications available from BRICS countries like India, nor develop substantial local pharmaceutical production capacity.
MSF and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) are jointly campaigning for the amendment of South Africa's patent laws, to put the country on par with its BRICS peers in protecting public health.