Medicines and Related Substances Bill Raises Red Flags

When Special Interest Runs Health Department

Traditional medicine; whether Indian, Chinese, Caribbean or African has been around for centuries. The knowledge often passed from one generation to the next, is priceless. Oh, that was until some corporations saw the opportunity to acquire and own the knowledge.

In Brief

  • Close examination of the proposed Medicines And Related Substances Amendment Bill reveals a scheme by officials at the Department of Health to dodge scrutiny of the proposed changes, specifically by the National House of Traditional Leaders
  • The Bill aims to establish a new medicines regulatory agency with scope to regulate industries such as complementary medicines, medical devices and diagnostics, and cosmetics
  • There appears to be a link between the push for the legislation to the rapid acquisitions of natural medicine companies’ companies by a few big wigs

Is South Africa’s Department of Health scheming to put traditional knowledge almost exclusively in the hands of multinationals? After examining two well intentioned proposed legislations, (one already passed and the second pending before parliament), it is hard to miss the tell tale signs of influence by special interest groups.

Enacted in 2007 and assented to in January 7, 2008, the Traditional Health Practitioners Act has not fully taken off despite budgetary allocations to a non-existent Interim Traditional Health Practitioners Council. However, of greater worry is the proposed law published in February 2014, Medicines And Related Substances Amendment Bill.

Considering the questionable efficacy of some complementary medicine, many would agree the amendments were long overdue. Suspicious though, is the sudden and mass acquisition of natural medicine companies by an entity closely associated with a biotech company. News of the shopping spree probably excited a few healthy living activists – that someone aligned to a biotech industry was finally seeing some light.

Before we could applaud the new convert, Bruce Blumberg, professor of Developmental and Cell Biology at University of California, quickly reminded us of the rapid vertical integration of global seed, biotech and pharmaceutical companies. He calls the scenario ‘cradle to grave’ care.

In Prof. Blumberg’s cradle:

  • Nearly all seed companies were, or are being purchased by pesticide and biotech companies
  • Pesticide and biotech companies are either owned by, or divested from pharmaceutical companies
  • The seed companies sell crops that are resistant to parent company’s pesticides and herbicides - this leads to increased agrochemical use
  • Increased use of agrochemicals probably leads to adverse health consequences
  • Pharmaceutical parent company’s drugs are used to treat these adverse health consequences

That is one probable scenario, which would lead to the most effective natural or traditional medicines, already acquired by the biotech company, being used to cure the unnatural ailments brought about by laboratory generated ailments – more profits to the parent company.

State Law Advisers: they, who have mastered and memorised the laws of the land and beyond, question not.

But supposing the acquisition is of a futuristic kind? Acquire the natural knowledge with the sole aim of engineering laboratory equivalents then seeking means to eradicate their natural sources. What would be next, oxygen like in the 2012 film, Lorax?

Back to the proposed Medicine And Related Substances Amendment Bill, there appears to be a clear quest by officials at the Department of Health to circumvent public participation. Section 5.2 of the Bill declares; “The State Law Advisers are of the opinion that it is not necessary to refer this Bill to the National House of Traditional Leaders in terms of section 18(1)(a) of the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act, 2003 (Act No. 41 of 2003), since it does not contain provisions pertaining to customary law or customs of traditional communities.”

The Department may have counted on the poor reading culture of our often fist-fighting parliamentarians, but one individual - a Cape Town attorney, John Smith, of John Smith & Associate - perused the bill and refused to let the blanket statement go. Smith sought the department to explain on what the State Law Advisers had based such opinions.

What says you Adv. Lufuno Makhoshi?

In an email dated December 23, 2014, the Department’s legal advisor, Adv. Lufuno Makhoshi, wrote, “This serves to confirm that the Bill is now before Parliament (Portfolio Committee) and will also go to the Select Committee where all interested parties will be given an opportunity to make their representation. The Bill in its current form does not deal with traditional medicine.”

Not quite Adv. Makhoshi! The Department’s own documents entitled, Briefing on The Medicines and Related Substances Amendment Bill” addressed to the parliamentary portfolio committee dated September 3, 2014 (more than three months before his email) pages 11, 15, and 19 explicitly made references to African Traditional Medicines. There are several other sections that refer to alternative as well as complementary medicines. So, was there fear that the Bill would be thrown out by the National House of Traditional Leaders?

The Bill as it stands would make any product, without registration, to be illegal for use as a remedy. It defines complementary medicine as any substance or mixture of substances that – (a) originates from plant, minerals or animal. This covers nearly everything under the sun that has been used for centuries (from Africa to Asia to South America) to alleviate or prevent illness.

Expansion of functions: Adv. Lufuno Makhoshi, and now?

But surprisingly ignored in the Bill is Integrative Medicine, a form of healthcare that is gaining ground in many parts of the world. University of California’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine states in its website; “Integrative medicine combines with established approaches from around the world. By joining modern medicine with proven practices from other healing traditions, integrative practitioners are better able to relieve suffering, reduce stress, maintain the well-being, and enhance the resilience of the patients.”

As Professor Daniel Weber, a renowned authority on Evidence Based Medicine (EBM), says of Traditional Chinese Medicine (that could apply to some Traditional African Medicines); “There are reasons why the standards of evaluating Western medicine are not suitable for testing traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which are therapeutic objective and principles of TCM.

“TCM aims to correct maladjustments and restore the self-regulatory ability of the body, and not to antagonize specific pathogenetic targets… Multiple diseases might share one ‘pattern’ and be treated by the same herbal formula whereas one disease might display several different ‘patterns’ and be treated by multiple formulae.”

Prof. Daniel Weber's latest book, Botanical Oncology isolate, that has received overwhelming thumps up from oncologist.

Had the department of health personnel tasked with drafting the Bill bothered to do some research, they would have established the true value of integrative medicine. As things stand now, those oncologists who have been combining conventional and traditional medicines for patients (especially those who have found Prof. Weber’s book, Botanic Oncology, useful) are stuffed.

The ingenuity of the Department is however not lost to keen readers. The amendment is a mere formality as the Department is already implementing most of the issues they are now seeking to legislate.

In its briefing to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee in September 2014, the Department proudly revealed; “Regulations for the regulation of Complementary and Alternative medicines were published in November 2013 and are being implemented in a phase approach.” Why seek law to legalise a process that is already underway?

In the coming months, we shall reveal the Department’s plans to clip the wings of traditional medicine practitioners. We shall also reveal identities of conventional health practitioners bankrolled by big pharmaceuticals and biotech companies to acquire knowledge of traditional medicine practitioners.

Not lost to our team is the running conflict between the Receiver of Revenue, World Customs Organisation and the Medicine Control Council on the issue of classifications of imported products or substances.