A new blood thinner is looking much safer than conventional drugs to protect patients from heart attack and stroke. Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE Department of Trade and Industry is proposing far-reaching changes to South Africa’s intellectual property rights for medicines, which it says will increase access to cheaper drugs by making it harder for companies to obtain and extend patents.

Chief director for policy and legislation MacDonald Netshitenzhe said on Wednesday the draft intellectual property policy, which had been three years in the making, has been submitted to the Cabinet. It covers South Africa’s entire regime, not just medicines.

Among its provisions is a proposal to introduce a patent examination office to stop pharmaceutical companies from "evergreening" their patents, said Mr Netshitenzhe, referring to the controversial strategy in which companies that have products with patents that are about to expire take out new patents based on minor changes or new uses.

"These things can improve access to medicines," said Mr Netshitenzhe. Prices would come down as a result of increased generic competition, he said. South Africa intended to bring its intellectual property regime for medicines in line with other developing countries such as India, Brazil, Egypt and Kenya.

The proposal to introduce patent examination was applauded by activists, but panned by Owen Dean, who holds the Anton Mostert chair of intellectual property law at Stellenbosch University. Prof Dean said the department was "barking up the wrong tree" if it thought introducing an examination system would reduce the number of patents granted to companies and increase access to medicines.

"Virtually all the leading economies, including the US, Europe and Japan have examination systems," he said.

"Most of the patents registered in South Africa emanate in first-world countries … and it is highly unlikely that an application here would be refused if it had been granted there."

South Africa lacked the specialist skills to assess applications for medicine patents, and would tie patent applications up in red tape if it introduced an examination system. "The whole system will be slowed down and a lot of unnecessary cost is going to be incurred," he said.

Medicines Sans Frontieres spokeswoman Julia Hill welcomed the development, but said the crucial part will be seeing how funds are allocated so that there are adequate resources to do the job.

South Africa uses a depository system, in which patent applications are granted without extensive scrutiny. Patents can only be challenged after they have been granted, she said.

"It allows companies to file multiple patents on the same medicine and extend the life of their monopoly, keeping prices artificially high," Ms Hill said.