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S. Africa Seeks New AIDS Drugs Laws

June 4, 2001

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) _ South Africa on Monday moved forward with legislation that would let it bypass local distributors and shop for the cheapest AIDS drugs, following up on a landmark legal win over pharmaceutical companies in April.

The government issued draft legislation that would give the health minister power to override exclusive drug distribution rights. Once public hearings are complete, the health department will then make changes it deems necessary to the regulations and they will become law.

South Africa in 1997 passed legislation permitting parallel importing _ meaning that patented drugs could be acquired on the international market instead of from local, more expensive suppliers. It hoped this would give it access to cheap AIDS drugs to combat an epidemic that affects 11 percent of its population.

But the law was never implemented after almost all the world’s major pharmaceutical companies filed a lawsuit to have it overturned, saying their patent rights were being violated. The case was withdrawn in April, after the drug companies came under a barrage of criticism.

Now the government is pushing toward implementing the law.

Monday’s draft of the legislation would require that anyone wanting to import patented drugs into South Africa apply for a permit from the health minister. If the permit is granted, the importer then has to apply to register the drug with the country’s Medicine Control Council.

Once approved, the patent holder in South Africa would then be unable to block the drug’s importation and distribution, allowing South Africa shop around for the cheapest medicines.

Parallel import licenses would be valid for up to a year but could be renewed.

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said in a statement that the government had tried to balance its international obligations to respect patent rights with its objective of accessing more affordable medicine.

The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, which represents the major drug companies in South Africa, said it would issue a response to the regulations Tuesday.

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