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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa on Friday slammed global drug firms over a covert campaign against its planned overhaul of intellectual property laws to favor cheaper generic drugs, accusing pharmaceutical companies of a "satanic" plot to commit "genocide".
It is not the first time drugmakers have clashed with Pretoria. A decade ago the industry was forced to climb down in a bruising battle with South Africa over AIDS drugs patents and access to generics.
The latest fight reflects tension between an industry that wants to protect its intellectual property, even as it pushes further into emerging markets, and governments from India to Brazil that are determined to increase patients' access to life-saving treatments.
South Africa is in the final stages of implementing a new law that would allow generic drugmakers to produce cut-price copies of patented medicines and make it harder for firms to register and roll over patents.
Global drugmakers have drawn up a $600,000 publicity campaign to mobilize local and overseas opposition to the intellectual property (IP) changes, according to a document written by a drugs industry lobby group and seen by Reuters.
Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi on Friday lashed out at drugmakers, saying their campaign was aimed at turning South Africans against the government.
"It's a conspiracy of satanic magnitude," he said. "This document can sentence many South Africans to death. This is a plan for genocide."
The ruling African National Congress is looking to cut healthcare costs as it grapples with the world's heaviest HIV/AIDS caseloads and its biggest treatment program.
The new law is expected to reduce medicine prices and open up a fledgling generic drug industry dominated by Aspen Pharmacare and Adcock Ingram.
The policy would also close a loophole known as "ever-greening" that allows a drugmaker to make minor changes to an existing drug or discover a new use for it, and then register it as a totally new find.
Healthcare activists say South Africa's track record of approving drug patents - in 2008 it granted more than 2,400 patents compared with fewer than 300 in six years in Brazil - shows the need for reform.
The document - prepared by U.S. consultancy Public Affairs Engagement for industry lobby Innovative Pharmaceutical Association South Africa (IPASA) - outlines a plan to delay the reform at least until after South Africa's elections in early May by suggesting the new law would be politically damaging.
"The world cares that South Africa is proposing to take a wrong turn in economic policy by weakening IP protections. And by cares, we mean both expresses compassionate concern and will take action by reducing investment," the document reads.
IPASA members include drugmakers such as Sanofi, Baxter International, Pfizer and Novartis.
IPASA spokeswoman Val Beaumont confirmed the authenticity of the document but said the proposals were still under consideration.
"No part of those proposals have been accepted. No part of that document has been implemented," she told Reuters.
The industry could now ditch the campaign - which it dubbed "Almost Political" - because the leaked document has likely weakened its negotiating position.
Under current South African IP law, pharmaceutical companies are able to register drugs as new without being checked for their novelty.
Editing by David Dolan and Erica Billingham