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Seven things that will make you think twice about the cost of medicine

Life-saving medicines are out of reach for many patients but a World Health Organisation meeting held in Johannesburg this week could change that.

By 15:00 on Thursday, more than ten police vans were idling at the entrance of Emperor’s Palace in Kempton Park, where the World Health Organisation (WHO) is hosting the second Fair Pricing Forum this week.

With this much security, you’d be forgiven for expecting some drama. Half an hour later, about 100 protesters from the patient rights group the Treatment Access Campaign (TAC) arrived with placards and a memorandum to hand over to the health department and WHO.

And their demands are hardly radical.

In a nutshell, they want sick people to get the medicines they need, you know, without having to sell everything they own. Or worse, dying because they don’t have the cash.

TAC and other civil society organisations including the Fix the Patent Laws Campaign had planned to hand over a memorandum of demands to the WHO ahead of the forum.

Inside Emperor’s Palace, people in suits and sparkles will spend two days discussing ways to get drugs to patients cheaply. You might think: “Hey, these people have the same goal! I’m sure they let the advocates in.”

And you’d be wrong. 

They will also discuss ways to force #BigPharma into being more transparent about the cost of developing drugs. But is this event open to the media? Nope. 

Luckily, South Africa’s civil society hosted a panel discussion with some of the forum’s top speakers. Here’s what we learnt:

1. Some governments are more suspicious of their citizens than they are of giant multinational pharmaceutical companies.

2. Loopholes in South Africa’s patent laws means patients have to fork out up to R75 000 per month for blood cancer drugs. But it’s not just here, drug companies are finding gaps in health policies all over the world, and they’re not afraid to use them.  

3. If medicines aren’t accessible to people who need it most, are we facing a crisis? Pretty much, yes.

4. Should South Africa start keeping tabs on drug companies? Other countries are looking into how much money goes into the development of drugs compared to how much they are sold for.

5. So, what exactly is a fair price?

6. And how can governments get the leverage it needs against Big Pharma to demand fair prices?

7. The fight against Big Pharma isn’t new. Same problem, different year.

Joan van Dyk was a health journalist, senior health journalist and news editor at Bhekisisa between 2017 and 2023.