Countries are fighting drugmakers over access to TB and HIV drugs

South Africa, Colombia and others have recently adopted a more combative approach towards drugmakers

In a monumental shift, countries such as South Africa and Colombia are challenging pharmaceutical giants and advocating for affordable treatments for diseases like tuberculosis (TB) and HIV. This move is seen as a response to the global race for COVID-19 vaccines, where wealthier nations secured the majority, leaving poorer countries in dire need. Recognizing the need for self-reliance post-pandemic, these nations are challenging drugmakers and striving to make essential medicines more accessible.

A focal point of this challenge is the drug bedaquiline, crucial for treating drug-resistant TB in South Africa, where the disease claimed over 50,000 lives in 2021. Activists have protested against efforts by Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to protect its patent on the drug. After significant pressure, J&J eventually dropped its patent in over 130 countries, allowing generic versions to be produced. In Colombia, the government took a bold step by declaring a compulsory license for the HIV drug dolutegravir, challenging the patent-holder Viiv Healthcare, and seeking to ensure affordable AIDS treatment.

This pushback against pharmaceutical companies is rooted in the stark realities of the past, notably the HIV epidemic in Africa during the late 1990s-2000s. President Nelson Mandela’s decision to suspend patents for wider access to AIDS drugs faced legal challenges, but ultimately, drug companies dropped the lawsuit in 2001. This historical experience has shaped Africa’s stance today, with a growing number of countries refusing to let intellectual property hinder access to lifesaving medications.

While these efforts mark a significant step forward, challenges remain. Some experts point out that South Africa’s intellectual property laws need further reform, making it easier for pharmaceutical companies to acquire and extend monopolies. Additionally, the need for robust health systems is emphasized, as merely challenging drug companies is insufficient without the ability to efficiently deliver medicines to those in need. Overall, this transformative approach signals a determined stand by African nations to ensure equal access to vital treatments and vaccines, learning from past experiences to shape a more equitable healthcare future.

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