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Good Medicine for Thailand
May 29, 2008
Slowly, the war on drug patents in Thailand seems to be turning. Last week the government removed one of the most vocal opponents of intellectual property rights from the board of the state-owned Government Pharmaceutical Organization. It's a small step, but an important one for restoring Thailand's international reputation and protecting patients' health.
Vichai Chokevivat strongly supported Thailand's violation of drug companies' patents over the past two years. Along with former Health Minister Mongkol na Songkhla and an adviser, Suwit Wibulpolprasert, Mr. Vichai argued that Bangkok was acting according to domestic and international law when it allowed the government to manufacture HIV/AIDS and cancer drugs using formulas patented by Sanofi-Aventis, Abbott Laboratories and other companies.
That's debateable, at best. The World Trade Organization says patents can be seized - after negotiation - in cases of "national emergency" or for "public non-commercial use." But Thailand doesn't have an HIV/AIDS epidemic like sub-Saharan Africa, and its cancer incidence rates are average. As for the "non-commercial use" clause, Mr. Vichai opposed the appointment of the president of Thailand's Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association to the GPO board last month because "the private sector" is "our business competitor [our emphasis]." Thailand also didn't do much to negotiate with the drug companies before seizing their inventions.
Health Minister Chaiya Sasomsup, who took office in February, deserves kudos for removing the official sanction for these kinds of harmful public voices. He has pledged to review patent policies, and in February, he moved the then-Food and Drug Administration chief Siriwat Tiptaradol - who helped the government browbeat drug companies into lowering their prices - to the civil service commission. He did this all while NGOs launched a campaign to get him removed from office.
Mr. Chaiya understands that drug companies won't devote significant resources to researching Thai-specific diseases if they aren't compensated for their innovations. The Government Pharmaceutical Organization has a history of corruption and isn't certified by the World Health Organization. It is hardly an institution to invest with more power.
Far better to encourage world-class, private drug companies to invest in Thailand and work with the government on better drug pricing schemes and delivery programs. Mr. Chaiya's quiet war for property rights isn't on behalf of the drug companies. It's in the best interest of Thai patients.
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