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Thailand urged to “resist pressure” over compulsory licensing

World News | February 22, 2008


Lynne Taylor

As ministers in Thailand’s new government prepare for a meeting next week which will finally decide whether or not they will abandon the country’s programme of compulsory drug licensing, international pressure from both critics and supporters of the policy is growing.

Immediately upon taking office, new Minister of Public Health Chaiya Sasomsab cancelled the licensing programme, fearing international trade retaliations, particularly from the USA, and said he would review the most recent batch of licences issued by his predecessor, Mongkol Na Songkhla. These covered four cancer drugs - Novartis’ Glivec/Gleevec (imatinib), though that case has been settled, plus the firm's Femara (letrozole), Sanofi-Aventis’ Taxotere (docetaxel) and Genentech’s Tarceva (erlotinib).

However, charities and non-governmental organisations have urged Mr Chaiya to stand firm. “These compulsory licences are completely legal and permit the government to provide cheaper and lifesaving drugs to their people,” said Sarah Ireland, regional director for East Asia at the UK-based aid charity Oxfam, while the group’s HIV/AIDS programme director Chalermsak Kittitrakul warned that if Thailand failed to continue to enforce compulsory licensing on key cancer drugs, it could affect other developing countries’ attempts to follow suit.

Opponents of the Minister’s plans also point out that a World Health Organisation-led mission has this month confirmed the legitimacy of compulsory licensing. The policy “is one of several cost-containment mechanisms that may be used for patented essential medicines not affordable to the people or to public health insurance schemes,” said the team, which also included representatives of the World Trade Organisation, the United Nations Development Programme and legal experts. Moreover, health care activists in Thailand say they are in discussions with lawyers about taking the Minister to court if he attempts to revoke the policy, the national Chamber of Commerce has also urged him to retain it, and further backing has come from a group of law professors and other experts from Argentina, Australia, Canada, South Africa and the USA.

Meantime, a letter signed by over 40 US public health, consumer and development organisations and academics has been sent to Mr Chaiya, urging him not to allow the review to become distorted by “reprehensible but groundless threats” of potential trade sanctions from the brand-name pharmaceutical industry.

Thai government officials believe that the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America is set lobby the US Trade Representative to have Thailand designated a Priority Foreign Country under the Special 301 process, a move which carries the possibility of trade sanctions. The industry petition is reportedly based on claims that issue of the licenses was not discussed with the drugs’ patent holders.

The US letter assures Mr Chaya that such a threat is “empty bluster” which he should not take seriously as it has “no basis in US law or political reality.” As there is little doubt that Thailand’s actions are compatible with its WTO obligations, and the USTR has never disputed this, the official could not make such a designation, it says.

The letter also tells the Minister that PhRMA “routinely asks…the USTR...for more than it has any hope of achieving,” and assures him that the US public holds the pharmaceutical industry “in shockingly low regard.” Moreover, it is certain that the next US president “will be much less responsive to pharmaceutical industry interests than the current administration” and will likely support efforts in developing countries to speed the introduction of generic competition to make essential medicines available, according to the signatories.

Thai government officials say that discussions with the patent holders did take place, but no agreement was reached as the companies’ response was an offer to lower their prices gradually. The Health Ministry has also said that it has evidence to prove it offered 13 invitations to the patent-holders for talks since last October, which it will produce if the USA decided to take action.

Thailand currently appears on the USTR’s Priority Watch List of intellectual property transgressors.

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