Patents A Barrier to Cancer Treatment in South Africa?

By Michelle Mukonyora
20 June 2016 Update

In March it was reported that the South African government is attempting to convince the pharmaceutical company Roche to reduce the exorbitant costs of its breast cancer drug, Herceptin. Herceptin treatments cost local breast cancer patients half a million rand per annum. Earlier in the year, the Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi, spoke out strongly against multinational pharmaceutical companies’ drug prices. He described them as  “devilishly expensive”. It will be of interest to note what comes out of these negotiations.

5 February 2016

As an additional burden to communicable diseases, cancer is an emerging health problem on the African continent. Breast cancer is one of the most prevalent cancers amongst women in Africa and tragically, as many as half of diagnosed patients die as a result of late diagnoses. The prohibitive costs of cancer treatments is also another battle that accounts for the high death-rate.

Human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) is a protein found on the surfaces of breast cells. It plays a role in the healthy growth of breast tissue, but when it is over-expressed, as is the case in 20-30% of breast cancer cases, abnormal growth/cancer occurs. HER2 positive cancer patients are treated with Herceptin (trastuzumab).  Unfortunately, many medical aid societies in South Africa do not provide cover for Herceptin treatment because it is too expensive. Pharmaceutical company Roche owns several patents for trastuzumab, which are essentially preventing affordable treatment options for South Africa until 2033. ​ The required twelve month course costs approximately  R600,000. This exhorbitant cost is in spite of the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) considers trastuzumab to be an essential medicine.

Fix the Patent Laws” is a campaign whose mandate is to make medicine affordable and thereby improving the health of millions of South Africans. Watch the video below that they made for World Cancer Day on the 4th February 2016.

Video: South Africa: Access to critical breast cancer drug trastuzumab limited by patent laws
Video by “Fix the Patent Laws” (