In a move that is sure to cause consternation among pharmaceutical firms, the government of Thailand says that it is going to widen its strategy of issuing compulsory licenses to buy generic versions of cardiovascular and AIDS drugs that are still patent-protected.

The country’s health minister, Mongkol na Songkhla, confirmed that “the laws have been signed and they are now effective," saying that the measure was necessary “because we have so many patients to treat with so little budget. We can't watch our people die."

Thailand is planning to buy generic versions of two drugs from companies in China or India, which will cost around 10% of the original price and Dr Mongkol has confirmed that they are Abbott Laboratories' AIDS drug, Kaletra (lopinavir/ritonavir), and Plavix (clopidogrel), the blockbuster anti-clotting agent sold by Sanofi-Aventis and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

The Thai health ministry claims that the move is perfectly legal because under World Trade Organisation rules, a government is allowed to declare a national emergency and produce a patented drug without the permission of the patent owner. However, this line has not impressed the drugmakers.

Teera Chakajnorodom, president of Thailand’s Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, was reported in The Bangkok Post as saying “we fully appreciate the health challenges and financial constraints that the ministry faces. However, the best response to this situation is to engage constructively with industry to find a mutually agreeable solution.'' Drugmakers had not been consulted and the decision had left the industry “stunned” and he added that "the law allows such actions with pharmaceutical products only in cases of extreme national emergencies, or during wartime, and only after negotiation with the companies concerned."

The news comes just a few weeks after the Thai government issued its first compulsory licence, to make a generic version of Merck & Co’s antiretroviral Sustiva (efavirenz).