Thailand’s Public Health Minister, Chaiya Sasomsap, is set to advise the government today (Tuesday) that it should continue to override the patents on three cancer drug treatments – Novartis’ Femara (letrozole), Sanofi-Aventis’ Taxotere (docetaxel) and Genentech’s Tarceva (erlotinib).

A review of the government’s compulsory licensing policy, begun last month, has revealed that maintaining the programme will save the government more than 3 billion baht a year and allow cancer patients access to affordable drugs, the Minister announced yesterday (Monday). He said he will be presenting these findings to Commerce Minister Mingkwan Saengsuwan today, but added that he would also seek to continue negotiations on lower prices with the drugs’ manufacturers. Last month, Thailand cancelled its compulsory license on a fourth cancer drug, Novartis’ Glivec/Gleevec (imatinib) after the firm agreed to supply it free to hundreds of leukemia patients in Thailand. The previous government’s Public Health Minister, Mongkol Na Songkhla, issued the compulsory licenses on the four drugs on January 4, just before leaving office.

On Monday, Paichit Varachit, Deputy Permanent Secretary for Public Health, said the Government Pharmaceutical Organization would now start negotiations to obtain the three cancer treatments under compulsory license from generics manufacturers, including Indian firms which are currently supplying Thailand with HIV/AIDS drugs. However, he added that if talks with the manufacturers resulted in significantly lowered prices, the government could decide to purchase these instead.

Since announcing that the previous government’s compulsory licensing policy would be reviewed, Mr Chaiya has come under intense pressure not to end it from doctors, patient groups, charities, non-governmental organisations and others who regard Thailand’s policy as a model for other nations. Doctors and health activists in the country had been campaigning for his removal, and threatened to take him to court, after he fired the Health Ministry’s lead negotiator with the drugmakers and said that Thailand could afford to pay the full prices for the drugs if it meant that the threat of trade sanctions or boycotts, especially from the USA, could be avoided.

US trade officials have always denied that any trade sanctions are planned, although Thailand does appear on the US Trade Representative’s current Priority Watch List for intellectual property transgressors. The USTR’s latest list of its trading partners’ IP status is due to be published next month, and Puangrat Asavapisit, director-general of the Thai government’s Intellectual Property Department, has been petitioning the US agency to upgrade the country to the lower-priority Watch List because of its success in protecting IP rights. Ms Puangrat does not believe the USTR will include the issue of the cancer drugs’ compulsory licenses in the new list, according to local reports.

However, the European Union is set to ask the World Trade Organisation for a ruling on Thailand’s policy. Under pressure from France and Germany, the EU has said it will file a complaint against the country, claiming that it is breaching the WTO Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) rules, but Ms Puangrat said this week that if a case were to be brought it would show that the country’s policy is TRIPs-compliant. Also, in February, a delegation led by the World Health Organisation and which also included representatives of the WTO, the United Nations Development Programme and legal experts, confirmed Thailand’s compulsory licensing policy to be “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.”