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  • Thailand backs off threat to break drug patents


[BANGKOK] Thailand has delayed breaking the patent of an AIDS drug and a heart medicine, and entered into negotiations with drug firms to lower the price so that more people can be treated.

The negotiation panel of the Public Health Ministry yesterday (7 February) held its first talks with US firm Abbott to discuss a price reduction for the AIDS drug Kaletra.

Thawat Suntrajarn, head of the department of disease control, said the firm had offered to drop the price from around US$260 per person per month, to US$170. But the offer failed to satisfy the ministry, and the two sides agreed to negotiate again next month.

Last month the government threatened to break the patent on both Kaletra and Plavix, a heart medicine produced by Sanofi-Aventis and Bristol-Meyers Squibb. It issued two compulsory licenses, which, under World Trade Organization rules, would have allowed other firms to produce the patented products without the patent owners' consent.

Had the Plavix license gone ahead, it would have marked the first time that a developing country had used compulsory licensing to challenge patents for a 'life-style' disease — one that is not for AIDS or an epidemic.

But the move drew strong opposition from the drug producers. The World Health Organization pursuaded the Thai government to negotiate with drug firms before issuing a compulsory license.

According to Thawat, the government is willing to give drug firms a fair chance to deal with the matter. "It’s also partly because our drug production capacity for this drug is not quite up and in place,” he added.

Kaletra is relied upon by about 20,000 HIV/AIDS patients in Thailand who have developed resistance to the more conventional drugs, placing a severe financial burden on the public health service.

Nimit Tienudom, director of the Bangkok-based Aids Access Foundation, said compulsory licensing could prove a crucial tool, empowering the government to bargain for public interests.

But Switzerland-based Ellen Hoen, from Medécins sans Frontières, cautioned that negotiation may not be the best way forward.

“History has shown that the best way to bring prices down is by competition and generic production," Hoen told SciDev.Net.

She cited a similar case in Brazil, which ended up with relatively high drug prices being fixed for a number of years.

The ministry has not yet made clear what steps will be taken for Plavix.

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