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Thailand disappointed to be on USTR watchlist yet again

World News | April 28, 2008


Kevin Grogan

The Thai government has expressed disappointment at finding itself once again on the USA’s ‘priority watch list,’ a ranking of serial violators of intellectual property, a decision which reflects the country’s policy of compulsory licensing for certain drugs.

The United States Trade Representative (USTR) has issued its annual ‘Special 301’ report, the centrepiece of which is the priority watch list of the worst offenders. Thailand is on there again, along with Argentina, Chile, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and Venezuela.

The report says that while the USA “recognises the importance of Thailand’s public health challenges”, the issuing of compulsory licences on patented drugs “have contributed to continuing concerns regarding the adequate and effective protection” of IP. The USTR adds that it is “awaiting further information on the new Thai government’s approach in this area”.

In late 2006 and early 2007, compulsory licences were issued by the then-military government to allow generic versions of Merck & Co’s Stocrin (efavirenz) and Abbott Laboratories’ Kaletra (lopinavir/ritonavir), both HIV/AIDS drugs, plus Sanofi-Aventis/Bristol-Myers Squibb’s antiplatelet blockbuster Plavix (clopidogrel). They have since been joined by Sanofi’s Taxotere (docetaxel), Roche/Genentech’s Tarceva (erlotinib) and Novartis’ Femara (letrozole) and Glivec/Gleevec (imatinib), though the latter licence was cancelled after the Swiss firm agreed to supply it free to hundreds of leukemia patients in Thailand.

There were rumours that the new Thai government was thinking of abandoning the programme but it remains in place. Nevertheless, Thailand’s Foreign Minister Noppadon Patama said the government was surprised by the decision, saying that over the past year, charges have been brought against 7,000 IP violators and 6.7 million fake products have been destroyed. However it appears that the USA is more interested in compulsory licensing on drugs than a pile of pirate DVDs.

This would seem to be the view of Washington, DC-based corporate accountability group Essential Action and its director Robert Weissman, said that last year, when USTR placed Thailand on the list, “we labelled the action ‘outrageous, cynical, shameful.’ Unfortunately, nothing has changed”.

Noting that Thailand’s compulsory licensing policy is perfectly legal seeing as the move falls within the World Trade Organisation’s Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) rules, Mr Weissman said that the government is simply lowering the prices of medicines and making important drugs available to people “without regard to income”. However, “instead of congratulating Thailand, the USA denounces and saber-rattles”, he added.

Mr Weissman went on to say that “USTR knows it has no reasonable complaint against Thailand, but that big pharma wants it to say something”. It has said something, but “in such an imprecise way that it is impossible to pinpoint what the agency is concerned about or what it wants”.

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