Abbott Laboratories' announcement that it will not market any new drugs in Thailand following the government’s decision to issue a compulsory license for the company’s HIV drug Kaletra has received the backing of a leading figure in the pharmaceutical industry but fierce condemnation from pressure groups.

Abbott was stunned when the country's health minister, Mongkol na Songkhla confirmed at the end of January that the government had issued compulsory licenses to buy generic versions of Abbott' s drug, Kaletra (lopinavir/ritonavir), as well as Plavix (clopidogrel), the blockbuster anti-clotting agent sold by Sanofi-Aventis and Bristol-Myers Squibb. Given the arbitrary nature of the Thai move and its disregard for patents, Abbott has decided to withdraw marketing applications for six drugs in the country.

The US firm received the backing of Arthur Higgins, chairman of Bayer HealthCare, who told journalists after the German company’s financial press conference in Leverkusen that "I fully support Abbott” and the stance the firm and the industry taking. He added that the government’s move is not in “the long-term interest of the Thai people” and “is a very dangerous development."

However Abbott’s decision has not gone down well in Thailand and the Bangkok Post quotes Permanent Secretary for Justice, Jarun Pukditanakul, as saying that “the drug industry is an obvious profit-oriented business but its present business protection goes beyond the limit to the extent that the principle of human rights has been completely forgotten.” He added that the government is responsible for HIV-positive people and those suffering from chronic heart disease, therefore it was legally and morally right to balance business profits and the good health of the public by announcing compulsory licensing.

Abbott is also facing the ire of the humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). MSF says that Thailand desperately needs the new, heat-stable version of Kaletra and in the USA, Abbott no longer sells the old version of the treatment, which requires refrigeration, but will continue to market it in Thailand, “where tropical temperatures make it highly impractical to use.” David Wilson, of MSF in Thailand, said that “refusing to sell the drug here is a major betrayal to patients."