Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Thailand will override cancer drug patents

BANGKOK, March 10 (Reuters) - Thailand's new government will override international patents on three cancer drugs, new Health Minister Chaiya Sasomsap said on Monday after a month of protests against his review of the controversial policy.
Chaiya, under pressure from health activists and doctors who campaigned to have him sacked, said declaring compulsory licences on the drugs would save Thailand more than 3 billion baht ($100 million) over the next five years.
"The findings have convinced me to go ahead with the CLs since the ministry's policy is to give patients good access to quality drugs at cheap prices," Chaiya said of the review by a panel of Health Ministry officials.
The decision is a blow to major pharmaceutical companies which had lobbied hard to reverse the CL policy launched by the previous government appointed after a bloodless 2006 coup.
The three drugs are Letrozole, a breast cancer medicine made by Novartis AG, the breast and lung cancer drug Docetaxel by Sanofi-Aventis, and Roche's Erlotinib, used for treating lung, pancreatic and ovarian cancer.
A licence issued on a leukaemia drug, Glivec, was cancelled last month after its maker, Novartis, agreed to supply it free to hundreds of Thai patients.
Shortly after a democratically-elected government took power in February, Chaiya ordered the review of a policy he said was a "politically correct decision, but not legally correct".
At the time he said the government could afford the full cost of the drugs, if it meant avoiding trade retaliation by the United States, home to some of the world's biggest drug firms.
U.S. officials denied there were any plans to impose sanctions on Bangkok, although Thailand was placed on a watch list, meaning Washington believed its respect for patents had weakened.
When Chaiya, a businessman with no medical training, fired the Health Ministry's top official negotiating cheaper prices from foreign drug firms, outraged health activists and doctors launched a campaign to remove him.
Chaiya said on Monday the ministry would buy cheaper versions of the cancer drugs from generic producers, such as Indian firms which already supply copy-cat HIV-AIDS medicines to Thailand.
Under World Trade Organisation rules, countries can issue a compulsory licence to make or buy generic versions of patented drugs deemed critical to public health as long as the medicines are meant for domestic use.
Former Health Minister Mongkol na Songkhla overrode Merck's AIDS drug Efavirenz in late 2006, arguing that Thailand could not afford patented drugs for a national health plan that covers about 80 percent of the country's 63 million people.
A few months later he did the same on a Sanofi-Aventis heart medicine and an AIDS drug made by Abbott Laboratories, which refused to register several new medicines in Thailand.
Mongkol, who targeted the four cancer drugs weeks before he left office, has defended the CL policy against major drug firms which accused him of stealing their intellectual property rights. ($1= 30 Baht) (Reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

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