Multinational drugmakers in South Africa say they have rejected a planned campaign, put forward by US lobbyists against the government’s proposed patent laws, which South Africa’s Health Minister warned would lead to “genocide.”

According to Virginia-based lobby firm Public Affairs Engagement (PAE), the draft National Policy on Intellectual Property - which South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) put out for public comment last September - “justifies a weak IP regime” and “takes dead aim at innovative pharmaceutical companies and the strategic life sciences in general.”

“South Africa is now ground zero for the debate on the value of strong IP protection. If the battle is lost here, the effects will resonate,” says PAE, in its proposed “Campaign to Prevent Damage to Innovation from the Proposed National IP Policy in South Africa,” prepared for the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association of South Africa (IPASA). 

The document was circulated to IPASA members on January 10, proposing the work to be conducted on the campaign from January 13 to February 15. However, the South African Mail & Guardian newspaper then published details of the plan, which has been strongly condemned by health activists.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said the proposals would put corporate profits before health and could “sentence many South Africans to death. That is no exaggeration. This is a plan for genocide,” he said.

Moreover, it would use South Africa “as an entry point” for an attack on “the whole developing world,” he told the Mail & Guardian.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) described the plan as a “covert attempt by the multinational pharmaceutical companies to spend extraordinary amounts of money to interfere in South Africa’s legislative process,” while the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) said that the international industry had planned to spend $450,000 on the campaign, and that it “takes us back to the turn of the century when 39 pharmaceutical companies took President Nelson Mandela and the South African government to court to try to stop legislative reform to improve South Africa’s ability to access affordable life-saving medicines.”

“Now, just weeks after his death, foreign pharmaceutical companies are coordinating another major attack on this right,” said TAC’s general secretary, Vuyiseka Dubula.

Then on January 17, IPASA issued a statement stressing that it had not engaged PAE to lobby on intellectual property “or any other matter” in South Africa.

“PAE submitted a proposal for a campaign, which was reviewed and subsequently rejected by IPASA members, and no payment or pledge has been made in any respect,” said the industry group.

IPASA adds that it supports the broad objectives of the draft national IP policy. A number of the health-related recommendations outlined in the draft, including mechanisms for compulsory and voluntary licensing and parallel importation, are already possible through existing legislation, and IPASA’s written submission to the DTI consultation raises questions “on how such existing legislation will be integrated under the proposed policy framework,” it says.