The pharma industry has come under heavy criticism from the South African government after a leaked memo uncovered a public relations campaign aimed at blocking patent law reforms in the country.
The document (PDF) - which was prepared for the US trade organisation PhRMA and South African equivalent IPASA by the Washington-based lobbying firm Public Affairs Engagement (PAE) - sets out plans to influence a draft national intellectual property regime currently working its way through the country's parliament.
A key objective of the IP proposals is a loosening of patent protection - following the lead of other emerging markets such as Brazil and India - in order to improve access to life-saving medicines through compulsory licensing and other means.
The PAE sets out a plan in its proposal to "delay the national IP draft proposal with the eventual aim of modifying it to protect IP," via a campaign to remind South African legislators and officials that implementing it will cut foreign direct investment (FDI) and weaken the economy.
Following the leak, the IPASA moved swiftly to put out a statement saying it has not engaged the consultancy 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 organisation's chief operating officer Val Beaumont, although a leaked email (PDF) posted on the website of NGO Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) suggests the first stage of the campaign was about to be activated.
The leaks have prompted colourful language from senior South Africa figures, with health minister Aaron Motsoaledi describing the lobbying as a "plan for genocide" of "satanic magnitude" in an interview with the Mail & Guardian newspaper, saying it would hamper access to drugs for cancer and tuberculosis.
Meanwhile, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has campaigned for freer access to medicines in less economically developed parts of the world for years, have accused the multinational pharma industry of buying time to protect or 'evergreening' its patented drugs before the new law goes into effect.
"These changes would, among other initiatives, ensure that companies cannot unfairly extend monopolies by simply changing a drug's formulation or combining two medicines into a single tablet, and registering a new patent for an obvious change," it said in a statement.
South Africa awards more patents on medicines than the US and Europe, it claims, which sometimes mean the public cannot access generics already available in other countries. Citing the case of Novartis' cancer drug Glivec (imatinib) - which has been the subject of an IP battleground in India in recent years - the NGO says the drug costs 35 times more in South Africa than in other countries where generics are available.
"South Africa represents 'ground zero' for the looming legal battles on intellectual property between pharmaceutical companies and middle-income countries seeking access to affordable medicines for their people," said MSF's access campaign head Dr Manica Balasegaram.