Thailand and Brazil, the two nations that have most recently taken out compulsory licensing orders for patent-protected drugs, are planning to sign a health cooperation agreement this summer.

Attending the 60th World Health Assembly (WHA) in Switzerland, Thailand’s Minister of Public Health, Mongkol Na Songkhla said that he had discussed the issue with his Brazilian counterpart Jose Gomes Temperao and the two countries now plan to cooperate on health development as well as on manufacturing medicines, including vaccines for influenza.

The countries are currently regarded as flagbearers in the fight for cheaper drugs by opponents of the pharmaceutical industry and earlier this month Brazil's president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva issued the license which gives the government's health ministry the green light to import a generic version of Merck & Co’s patent-protected HIV treatment Stocrin/Sustiva (efavirenz) from India at around $0.45 per pill. A couple of months earlier, Thailand had issued compulsory licences for Abbott Laboratories' AIDS drug Kaletra (opinavir/ritonavir) and Sanofi-Aventis/Bristol-Myers Squibb's anti-clotting agent Plavix (clopidogrel).

Thailand had already issued a licence on efavirenz a few weeks earlier and Dr Mongkol said that more talks between Merck and Thai health officials are due to take place in Bangkok shortly and if negotiations go smoothly, patients may be able to get access to the company's drugs at cheaper prices.

Brazil tells WHO to back poor countries over generics

Meantime, Brazil has urged the World Health Organization to become more publicly supportive of countries which make use of compulsory licences to obtain cheaper generic versions of patented drugs, writes Lynne Taylor.

The WHO’s director-general, Margaret Chan, should be proactive and express support for countries planning to make use of the WTO Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) amendment allowing nations which cannot produce patented drugs themselves to import generic versions manufactured under compulsory license, according to Brazil. The DG should also provide technical and policy support to these countries, it adds, in a resolution submitted late last week to the WHA.

“Sources of generic versions of new medicines are being limited as pharmaceutical product patents are adopted by almost all members of the World Trade Organization,” claims Brazil, in a resolution which was presented to the assembly ahead of the interim report of the Intergovernmental Working Group on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property (IGWG-PHI), which is tasked with drawing up concrete plans aimed at boosting R&D in neglected disease areas.

Opening the WHA last week, Dr Chan said that the “challenge” facing the IGWG-PHI is to achieve “the right balance between the immediate need for equitable access to quality, affordable medicines, and the long-term need to stimulate innovation.”

“A commitment to equity is central to the value system of primary health care. People should not be denied access to life-saving and health-promoting interventions for any reason yet, today, more than one-third of the world’s population has no access to essential interventions,” she said.