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Thai Ministry to Recommend Ignoring Patents on Cancer Drugs
  Wall St Jnl
March 11, 2008; Page A16
Thailand's new health minister announced that he would urge the Thai government to continue to ignore patents on several cancer drugs, disappointing big pharmaceutical companies that had hoped Bangkok might roll back a policy of overriding patents in the name of public health.
The drugs' makers include Roche Holding AG and Novartis AG of Switzerland and Sanofi-Aventis of France.
Suphan Srithamma, a spokesman for the Thai health ministry, said that Minister Chaiya Sasomsup has decided to support the previous government's decision to ignore cancer-drug patents in a bid to cut the cost of medicines for the Thai people. The health ministry will make its recommendation to the Thai cabinet today, according to Dr. Suphan.
Thailand's previous health minister, Mongkol na Songkhla, decided in early January to issue compulsory licenses (a policy that permits lower-cost generics) for four drugs: Novartis's imatinib, also known as Gleevec; Novartis's breast-cancer drug letrozole, whose brand name is Femara; Sanofi-Aventis's docetaxel, marketed as Taxotere and used to fight lung and breast cancer; and Roche's erlotinib, whose trade name is Tarceva.
Novartis proposed that same month to offer Gleevec free to poor Thai patients, possibly making a compulsory license unnecessary, according to the ministry of health. A Novartis spokeswoman wasn't available for comment. It wasn't clear how yesterday's decision would affect Gleevec, given Novartis's apparent earlier concession.
Martina Rupp, a spokeswoman for Roche, based in Basel, said the Swiss company's Thai subsidiary is currently in talks with the government "to support greater access to medicines for Thai patients." Ms. Rupp added that Roche "has been, and always will be, open to discussion and dialogue with the appropriate authorities."
Jean-Marc Podvin, a spokesman for Sanofi-Aventis in Paris, said that his company hasn't yet received definitive word from the Thai government, but that "we still remain optimistic" about the negotiations. Mr. Podvin added that Sanofi has "some concerns about the quality of the generic" version of docetaxel, which had world-wide sales of 1.87 billion ($2.87 billion) in 2007, that would be used to replace Sanofi's drug in Thailand.
Teera Chakajnarodom, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association -- the multinational drug industry's trade group in Bangkok, which counts among its members the three European drug companies whose patents are at stake -- condemned the Thai health minister's move.
"This is not good for the country. The image of Thailand will drop further," he said. "They should bring back the image of Thailand as a country that respects" intellectual-property rights.
Ever since a bloodless military coup in Thailand in September 2006, the military-installed government had been battling big pharmaceutical companies, threatening to sidestep their patents on drugs for AIDS and other diseases if they didn't drop the price of their medications. The Thai government argued that since the country's poor population couldn't afford the lifesaving drugs, and the government didn't have sufficient funds to cover their cost, drug companies should put public health before profit and cut the cost of the medications.
--James Hookway contributed to this article.

Thailand will override cancer drug patents
BANGKOK (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 licenses 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 license issued on a leukemia 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 license 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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