Cape Town — An American drug manufacturer has taken an important step to open the way to improved access to the treatment of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) across Africa.

The announcement by Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has been hailed by the humanitarian medical care NGO, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), as a “huge success” resulting from campaigns by TB activists, civil society and countries which “prioritis[e] public health over corporations’ interests.” And a South African campaigner for less expensive treatment has called on other drugs companies to follow J&J’s example.

Johnson & Johnson announced on September 29 that it will no longer enforce patents for the drug bedaquiline, which it sells as SIRTURO, in 134 low- and middle-income countries. Its announcement frees companies making generic versions of the drug to manufacture them at lower prices without fear of being sued for doing so.

Mulitnational drug companies have long defended their exclusive rights to manufacture life-saving drugs at prices which they set on the grounds that they invest considerable sums of money in researching and developing the medicines. J&J said in its announcement that bedaquiline was introduced in 2012 “after years of focused investments.”

J&J added: “Today, thanks to years of investments, collaboration, and responsible use of our intellectual property, bedaquiline is the backbone of World Health Organization-recommended treatment guidelines for drug-resistant TB, and three of every four MDR-TB patients on treatment are receiving a bedaquiline-containing regimen.”