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When pharma's spin failed

It was the worst public relations disaster for the pharmaceutical industry and the biggest victory for patients' right to affordable medicines when, in 2001, 39 pharma majors unconditionally dropped the case they had pursued for three years against the South African government, finally allowing imports of affordable medicines and increased use of generic drugs. The case was sparked off in 1997, when Nelson Mandela signed into law the Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act designed to improve access to affordable medicines, including HIV/AIDS drugs, by promoting generic medicines and allowing parallel imports of cheaper drugs. The drug companies sought to make an example of South Africa to show the Third World that they would not tolerate the importing or production of generic drugs. The 39 drug companies included Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Schering-Plough, Astra Zeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Novo Nordisk, Bayer, Roche, and Novartis.

This led to resounding global denunciation of the pharma industry for putting profits over people - by pursuing a court case blocking a law meant to make medicines affordable in South Africa where it was estimated that 4. 7 million people were infected with HIV out of a population of 43 million. Nearly 3, 00, 000 concerned citizens and 140 organisations from 130 countries signed the global 'Drop the Case' petition.

The protestors pointed out that the exorbitant prices of medicines in South Africa could not be justified as research and development costs as Africa accounted for a mere 1 per cent of the global sales of medicines. In the three years when the law was delayed in courts by the pharma industry, it was estimated that over 4, 00, 000 South Africans died of HIV/AIDS without any access to affordable treatment.

The clincher in the case was an affidavit filed by the South African protest group Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which detailed how research behind most of the anti-AIDS drugs was carried out by universities and other publicly-financed institutions. The judge, while giving pharma companies time to respond, ruled that they would have to reply to every point raised by the TAC as any allegation they refused to defend and explain would be taken as proven. Rather than revealing details of their research funding or the pricing policy on which they based their huge profits, the companies decided to withdraw the case on April 19, 2001.

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