The Competition Commission has launched an investigation into whether pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J) overcharged SA for lifesaving tuberculosis (TB) drug bedaquiline, reports Fin24.

Bedaquiline is used to treat drug-resistant TB and SA has one of the highest burdens of the infectious disease globally.

The WHO has estimated that more than 50 000 South Africans died of TB in 2021 alone.

Professor Norbert Ndjeka, director of drug-resistant TB at the National Department of Health, said he understood the commission would compare the price SA paid for the drug with what other countries were charged. 

In a briefing organised by Doctors Without Borders SA yesterday, Njeka said the government was paying J&J R5 400 per patient for a six-month course of the drug.

SA recently concluded a new deal with J&J to pay R5 500 for a six-month regimen of the drug from 1 October.

The new price would be valid for the next two years.

Health advocates, however, have questioned why SA is paying about twice as much as other low- and middle-income countries.

Fatima Hassan, a director and founder of the Health Justice Initiative, said that in addition to claims of excessive pricing, the commission had told the advocacy group it was investigating ‘evergreening’ by J&J.

Evergreening refers to when pharmaceutical companies slightly modify drugs to be granted new patents.

‘Evergreening and exploitative pricing are both anti-competitive,’ she said.

Hassan said she understood that J&J had been informed ‘overnight’ of the probe. A Competition Commission spokesperson confirmed the probe.

‘The commission is investigating the matter and we will soon issue a full statement.’

J&J did immediately responded to a request for comment.

Full Fin24 report