There’s no question that Hepatitis C has been one of the serious epidemics in Egypt. There was news about medication prices reaching skyrocketing highs of $1,000 per pill to go down to the insanely reasonable price of 900 EGP for the entire treatment.
The obvious question is: what happened?
I skimmed through articles published on the likes of The New York Times and The Atlantic. All of them said that the California based drug company, Gilead Sciences, has been selling Sovaldi. A Hepatitis C drug at the set price of a $1,000 since the very beginning.
Whether this was a purposeful publicity stunt or a lack of research on the part of the newspapers, who knows (this is in itself suspicious, but that’s a topic for another article). However; for now, all this has done is take away from what Menna El-Kotamy has accomplished. But who is Menna El-Kotamy?
What if I told you that the reason Sovaldi became available to millions of Egyptians was a pharmaceutical patent examiner working in the Egyptian Patent Office? Menna El-Kotamy noticed something in a report that others inside and outside of Egypt failed to see. Through her research, she found prior documents proving that Gilead’s compound ‘Sofosbuvir’ lacked novelty and innovation.
The components of the drug were not that of an original formula, therefore making it invalid for patenting. In spite of the fact that the patent was granted in the US and a large number of EU countries.
I got the chance to visit the Ministry of Scientific Research and Technology in order to talk with Menna about this whole ordeal. I was nervous that she would be hesitant to meet with me, but on the contrary, Menna couldn’t have been more thrilled.
Q: Can you talk to me about your version of events?
A: We received the documents and Gilead Sciences would’ve been granted the patent if the documents were approved. That would make the drug available in the country for up to 20 years with the price it originally went for. I looked through the application to make sure that the medication was of an original formula, which turned out to not be the case.
I found documents that proved that the chemical compound in the medication was not a novel invention. The documents showed that the entity was in fact used before, so we rejected the patent application for SOF for lack of novelty and inventiveness.
Based on that, now any company or generic producer [ a producer in a country that was not granted a patent before] could start making the medication and it wouldn’t have to be sold at the ridiculously high price Gilead originally wanted.
Q: Did anyone try to prevent you from coming out with this information, either directly or indirectly?
A: No, not at all. Procedures were very normal. No weird actions were taken and it was treated as any other case, which is odd only because of how huge the aftermath was.
Q: How is it that other countries missed such an important detail and granted a patent?
A: It depends on different research techniques. Some are thorough, some are not.
Q: Why do you think your name wasn’t mentioned afterwards, when the price went down?
A: The right to produce medication for 20 years has a lot of politics to it. When we went to the conference, it was a very sensitive issue so it’s normal for my name to not be on the document. They [superiors in the Egyptian Patent Office] dealt with it carefully because of the importance that comes with something as big as this is.
Q: You’re currently working in what people would call a “routine” job that has managed to affect millions of people. Do you have a message for the people who work in routine jobs and feel as though they have no impact?
A: Everyone was asking me, “why not pursue pharmacy? Or marketing? You know that pays better.” But I love what I do and I’m convinced that I am impactful here. Yes, it is a routine job but it does have an impact. That one decision changed the lives of so many in Egypt. Not only that, but the impact reached other countries and companies outside of Egypt started producing their own medication. People abroad are now getting treated. It’s interesting to think how one decision has had such a huge impact on health and politics.
I’m also working with the IP Academy. It’s a group of trainers made up of me and my friends, we are training people to be more thoughtfully aware. It’s an asset for all companies. and hopefully, it will impact the whole society.
Q: What do you hope comes out of a case like this?
A: My only hope is that Egyptian companies start working on their own medications. The patent didn’t have to be revoked for us to take action. We shouldn’t be waiting for foreign companies to come and save us. We should’ve already been researching this.
Another thing is that when media programs say the wrong things about it [in reference to the widely spread rumor that the company brought down the price out of compassion and goodness]. It undermines a lot of the hard work the entire team has put in. They should either be reporting it correctly or not at all. Even my mom gets really upset when she hears a program say something completely different than what actually happened.
Q: What would you like to advise our readers?
A: To educate themselves.
What struck me the most after having interviewed Menna, is her humility. Throughout the interview, I was waiting for Menna to boast about her actions, but more than anything Menna was grateful for the opportunity to share her story in hopes of inspiring those who feel like their day-to-day jobs will never have an impact.
Would you risk standing up against a billion-dollar company? How do you perceive routine jobs? Do you have any further questions for Menna? Let us know in the comments!