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Cheaper medicines for all, says health minister

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Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize speaks out about the NHI and how it could help reduce costs.

Dr Siya Ntutela, CEO of AfricaBio and Dr Nhlanhla Msomi, President AfricaBio SA with Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize. Picture: Tanya Waterworth

DURBAN – Cheaper medicines for South Africans. That was a key element of National Health Minister Zweli Mkhize’s speech delivered on Tuesday at the Bio Africa Convention at the Durban ICC which will run until Wednesday.

Addressing leading scientists and health professionals from around the world, Mkhize said the conference’s theme “From Consumers to Leading Innovation” comes as a signal to investigate innovative ways to manage costs when it comes to the government’s planned National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme

He said that “a win-win scenario is to embrace a partnership between the developed North and the developing South to innovate and manufacture products for our needs at a price that can be afforded by Africans.”

Long term patents which did not allow for generic medicines have played a key role in keeping the cost of medicines far above the financial reach of many South Africans. 

This was changed when it came to anti-retroviral medicines for HIV/Aids patients allowing for generics, which resulted in significantly lower costs for these medicines. Mkhize said addressing the issue of patents, which often run for 20 years and hold out any competitors, could create far more affordable medicines for diseases such as cancer and open the market for local companies in the commercial space.  

“As we prepare for the NHI, we find ourselves in the serendipitous position of coinciding with the “patent cliff”. As patents expire, here we find ourselves with an excellent opportunity to introduce policies that encourage prevalence of generics in the pharmaceutical market and also open up competition in the sector,” he said. 

Calling genetic engineering and biotechnology ”the lifeblood of the future”, Mkhize highlighted that regulators and scientists from across Africa will be trained on the ethical use and safety issues around biotechnology.

There has been much negativity around the NHI Bill which was recently introduced into Parliament, primarily over what it will cost the taxpayer and the resources to implement such a scheme on an ailing health infrastructure. But Mkhize said these were “misconceptions” which needed to be dispelled and that the department was working with international benchmarks with regard to the proposed NHI system. 

Independent on Saturday