Confusion surrounds the position of the new non-military government in Thailand regarding compulsory licences which override patents on drugs.

It had been widely reported that the new Public Health Minister Chaiya Sasomsap was going to review the compulsory licences policy announced by the previous military-appointed government which had stunned drugmakers.

The former Health Minister Mongkol Na Songkhla slapped a compulsory licence on Sanofi-Aventis’ blockbuster anti-platelet agent Plavix (clopidogrel) a year ago and the same policy was adopted towards two AIDS drugs – Abbott Laboratories’ Kaletra (lopinavir/ritonavir) and efavirenz, sold under patent as Stocrin by Merck & Co and Sustiva by Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Then, at the end of 2007, the Thai government announced plans to extend the compulsory licence programme to cover certain cancer drugs – Sanofi’s Taxotere (docetaxel), Roche’s Tarceva (erlotinib) and Novartis’ Femara (letrozole) and Glivec ((imatinib), though a deal was struck last week which will see less well-off Thais get Glivec free of charge.

Mr Chaiya, who assumed his post just last Wednesday, was reported as saying that the military government’s policy of allowing generics on patented drugs was politically the right thing to do but was “legally incorrect”. He then announced that a review was to take place.

However the Bangkok Post reports that 50 activists from a network of people living with HIV/AIDS and cancer patients have protested to the minister, saying that the licences are the only way for poor people to get access to these medicines.
Mr Chaiya is saying that there is no plan to revoke the policy for the time being, but a review is still necessary. The newspaper quotes him as telling the activists that saving 500 million baht (around $16 million) through compulsory licences “would mean nothing compared to the damages we could suffer if billions of baht worth of our exports are boycotted".

He is referring to the threat from the USA to apply economic sanctions on Thailand if intellectual property laws are not adhered to. The country was put on the US Trade Representative’s Priority Watch List last July and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has also threatened to ask the US government to get tougher with Thailand.