Thailand Widens Scope of Generic Drugs ; Its Suspension of Two Patents This Week Opens the Way to Use Copycat Drugs for Diseases Other Than AIDS
Simon Montlake Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Frustrated by the price of imported medicines, the Thai government said Monday it would suspend patents on two prescription drugs, one for treating AIDS and another for heart disease. The suspension would allow Thailand to import or manufacture its own copycat versions, cutting the cost of providing free healthcare to its 64 million people.
The abrupt move has reignited a long-running debate in the developing world over public-health emergencies, such as the AIDS epidemic, that clash with intellectual-property rights held by Western companies. But it also ratchets up the pressure on large pharmaceutical corporations by pouncing on a popular heart-disease drug that rakes in billions of dollars in annual sales.
In recent years, Brazil, South Africa, and other countries have turned to generic copies of patented AIDS drugs - known as compulsory licensing - to force pharmaceutical companies to lower their costs or lose market access. Companies, however, complain that overriding patents dulls their incentive to invest in research for future medicines.
Investors in Thailand were already reeling from a series of policy shifts by a military-backed government installed in October, including revisions to laws on foreign ownership of Thai-registered companies. Some analysts detect a growing protectionist mood among policymakers, who have embraced a royalist creed of economic sufficiency, though government officials insist that Thailand remains open to trade and investment.
Pharmaceutical companies say this latest announcement is another blow to business confidence that will deter biotech industries from expanding here. "We're stunned by this decision. It's never happened before in Thailand. We've never had compulsory licensing, not under any elected government," says Teera Chakajnoradom, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, which represents foreign drug producers in Thailand.
Taking the issue beyond AIDS
What makes Thailand's move so provocative - and potentially ripe for imitation - is that it widens the spectrum of public-health issues considered severe enough to warrant an overriding of patents. Until now, governments have intervened chiefly in the face of a widespread epidemic, such as AIDS. But by deciding to suspend the patent for Plavix, a top-selling drug for heart disease, Thailand has gone beyond other developing countries that license copycat AIDS drugs. Pharmaceutical companies warn that Thailand may also seek to break patents on drugs prescribed for other illnesses.
In a statement, the Ministry of Public Health said that because of the expense only 20 percent of around 200,000 affected patients in Thailand were receiving Plavix. It said that compulsory licensing would cut the cost per tablet from over $2 to as low as 20 cents, allowing doctors to increase patient access to the drug.
It cited a similar financial constraint on access to Kaletra, an anti-retroviral made by US-based Abbott Laboratories. Around 120,000 of an estimated 500,000 HIV-positive Thais currently receive a generic retroviral cocktail produced by a state-owned pharmaceutical company. However, an increasing number are becoming resistant to this cocktail, and 20,000 have been prescribed Kaletra, a second- line retroviral. …