Venezuela has announced plans to invalidate the patents on a number of medicines and allow local firms to produce cheap generic copies of them, under a reform of the country’s intellectual patent laws.

The proposals were announced on national television by the Minister of Trade, Eduardo Saman, who said the decision had been taken because the needs of Venezuelan patients with diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDS had to take precedence over the interests of powerful drugmakers. While he did not specify which products' patents would be overriden, Mr Saman told the nation that “patents have become a barrier to production, and we cannot allow barriers to the access of medicine or transnational medicine companies to impose their rights on the Venezuelan people."

“We are revising all the doctrines and laws related to patents, which should be compatible with the international treaties that we have signed and respect and honor,” he added.

The country’s President, Hugo Chavez, also referred to the plans in a recent radio and television address, in which he said: “we consider that patents cannot be a restriction or a trap.”

“An invention or a scientific discovery should be knowledge for the world, especially medicine,” said Pres Chavez, adding: “that a laboratory does not allow us to make a medicine because they have the patent - no, no, no.”

Mr Saman, who is also president of the Institute for the Defense of People in the Access to Goods and Services (Indepabis), said that his office is now drafting new industrial property legislation which will be submitted to the National Assembly.

Technical information relating to patents licensed in Venezuela will be posted on the website of the Autonomous Service for Intellectual Property (SAPI), and anyone will be able to “search all they need,” said SAPI’s director general, Arlene Pinate.

“This is very important, because Venezuelan technicians will be able to change and improve new technologies that have been developed," she added, according to a report in the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal.

However, industry leaders have warned that such a move could lead to a boycott of the Venezuelan market by leading multinational drugmakers, resulting in product shortages and loss of investment.

Venezuela currently imports most of its drugs, and the government’s plan could “create obstacles to importing the newest medicines,” said Edgar Salas, president of CAVEME, the pharmaceutical industry association of Venezuela.

Pharmaceutical imports into Venezuela are controlled by the Foreign Exchange Administration Agency (CADIVI), but the country is now the third leading pharmaceutical importer in Latin America, behind Mexico and Brazil, according to a recent report from Espicom.

- Last month, the government threatened to take over one of Pfizer’s two plants in the country, at least temporarily, because it manufactures essential medicines but production there had ceased for unstated reasons.