Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE first casualty of the row between Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association of South Africa (Ipasa) over the government’s plans to change its rules for medicine patents emerged on Wednesday as Denmark’s Novo Nordisk quit the group.

"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 said.

Ms Harris was referring to a R6m public affairs campaign against the government’s draft intellectual property policy put forward by Washington-based Public Affairs Engagement (PAE). Two independent sources told Business Day that there was deep unhappiness among some Ipasa members over the way a group of US-based Ipasa members had been pushing for the acceptance of the PAE’s campaign.

Among the measures proposed in the PAE’s strategy, leaked to the media last week, was the creation of a South African organisation to lobby against the policy that would have the appearance of a local political movement but would be run from the US.

Ipasa was formed less than a year ago by the merger of Innovative Medicines South Africa and the Pharmaceutical Industry Association of South Africa. It was the first single organisation representing "innovator" pharmaceutical companies since the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association split after it was forced to drop its controversial court case against the Medicines and Related Substances Amendment Act in 2001.

All of Ipasa’s members are research-based pharmaceutical companies that sell patented medicines and are potentially threatened by changes the government is proposing to its intellectual property laws that will make it harder to get patents and easier for cheap generic rivals to enter the market.

If the association fractures over this row it will make lobbying against these changes much more difficult.

On Wednesday, Ipasa spokeswoman Val Beaumont wrote in a text message: "I will meet (Novo Nordisk’s) CEO next week to get an understanding of their position. Our hope would be that we do not lose a valued and respected member." She declined to comment on the membership status of other companies that belong to Ipasa.

After documents detailing the PAE’s proposed campaign were leaked to the media and the Department of Health last week, Dr Motsoaledi accused Ipasa of hatching a "satanic plot" that would rob South Africans of affordable medicines.

Ms Beaumont has consistently said that the strategy was an unsolicited bid that was never given the go ahead by Ipasa. However, a leaked e-mail widely distributed to the media indicates that the strategy at least had the buy-in of Ipasa intellectual property committee chairman Michael Azrak of Merck.

The e-mail, sent by Mr Azrak to Ipasa members on January 10, says: "As agreed at the last board meeting in December, we have moved ahead in identifying a high-calibre consultancy group to work with us. The group selected is Public Affairs Engagement (PAE). This group was selected after a detailed process, where we received proposals from a number of agencies both local and international.

"The final selection was carried out in consultation with PhRMA (the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, an association of research-based drug firms)."

The e-mail ended by saying that Ipasa member companies should seek agreement from their country and global heads, and that they would be assumed to be in support unless they indicated otherwise by the close of business on January 15.

Treatment Action Campaign spokesman Marcus Low said Mr Azrak’s e-mail "clearly indicated he expected it to go ahead".

Ms Beaumont confirmed the veracity of the e-mail earlier this week, but said Ipasa had decided not to go ahead with the campaign by Tuesday of last week, before the documents were leaked to the media.