By Coday, Dennis
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 39, No. 6
A ruling by a Thai court struck down a pharmaceutical giant's exclusive rights to produce and sell antiretroviral tablets to treat HIV infections, opening the way to greater access to cheaper drugs for HIV/AIDS patients.
Meanwhile, Thai consumer and HW/AIDS groups filed another lawsuit against the company, Bristol-Myers Squibb, challenging the validity of its patent for the drug. Activists say the court challenges are a case study in how to make lifesaving medicines available and affordable to people in the developing world.
In early October, Thailand's intellectual property rights court ruled that an amendment to a patent held by Bristol-Myers Squibb for didanosine (ddI) was invalid. The ruling means that Thailand's Government Pharmaceutical Organization, a state enterprise, can produce a generic formula of didanosine tablets at considerable cost savings to HIV/AIDS patients.
Bristol-Myers Squibb, a multinational $19 billion pharmaceutical and health care products company, has until Nov. 30 to appeal the judgment.
The Government Pharmaceutical Organization, which was a plaintiff in the recent case against Bristol-Myers Squibb, currently makes ddI in a powder form, but the court ruling would allow the state enterprise to begin manufacturing ddI in tablets, which are more convenient, easier for patients to ingest and have fewer side effects.
Eight days after their first court victory, Thai consumers and HIV/AIDS activists filed another suit in the Thai intellectual property rights court alleging that Bristol-Myers Squibb's patent is invalid because of problems with the patent application and with patent office procedures.
Of the estimated 1 million people with HIV/AIDS in Thailand, 60,000 need antiretroviral medications, said Kamon Uppakaew of the Thai Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS. But only about 10,000 have regular access to the drugs, he said.
"The barrier to that is cost," Uppakaew said.
Didanosine, sold by Bristol-Myers Squibb under the brand name Videx, costs approximately $2.56 to $4.11 per dosage, in a country with a daily minimum wage of $3.84.
Thailand's Government Pharmaceutical Organization manufactures affordable drugs for distribution through public hospitals and clinics, which currently includes 13 items under its anti-AIDS program. According to Kanchorn Balangula of the agency, generic versions of these drugs are about 50 percent cheaper.
In 1992, the agency began researching two generic antiretroviral drugs: AZT (zidovudine) in capsule form and ddI in tablet and powder forms. The agency's AZT entered the market in 1995, but ddI tablets were never produced because of Bristol-Myers Squibb's patent.
The U.S. government-funded National Institutes of Health developed ddI in 1989. (Ironically, some of the field research was done in Thailand. …