Thailand allows copycat AIDS, heart disease drugs
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's army-appointed government confirmed on Monday it approved a cheap, copycat version of a blockbuster heart disease drug, the first time a developing country has torn up the international patent for such a treatment.
In addition to the "compulsory license" of Plavix, made by U.S. and European pharmaceutical giants Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sanofi-Aventis, Bangkok approved a generic version of Abbott Laboratories' Kaletra, an HIV/AIDS treatment.
The move, which Thai health officials said would save the country as much as 800 million baht ($24 million) a year, drew flak from the drug industry but praise from AIDS activists.
"We have to do this because we don't have enough money to buy safe and necessary drugs for the people under the government's universal health scheme," Health Minister Mongkol na Songkhla told reporters on Monday, confirming newspaper reports that circulated last week.
"The laws have been signed and became effective on Friday," said Mongkol, who incensed drugs companies in November by introducing Thailand's first such license for Merck's Efavirenz anti-retroviral AIDS treatment.
Under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, a government is allowed to declare a "national emergency" and license the production or sale of a patented drug without the permission of the foreign patent owner.
Teera Chakajnorodom, chairman of Bangkok-based pharmaceutical industry group PReMA, said he had been kept in the dark over the move. His only contact with the government was a phone call on Sunday from a health official asking for clarification of WTO rules.
Although the drug companies had not had time to coordinate a response, Teera said they might petition the Administrative Court, which rules on the legality of government actions, to block the license.
"If we want to be globalized, we have to respect the rules of the world and the WTO," he said.
The widening of compulsory licensing is another blow to foreign investors already reeling from capital controls imposed in December to stem a rise in the baht and a proposed tightening of laws governing overseas firms in Thailand.
Foreign investors said it also appeared to be another case of the government, which assumed power after a September 19 coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, acting unilaterally and appearing indifferent to international reaction.
Thawat Suntrajarn, head of the Health Ministry's Disease Control Department, said the copycat drugs would initially be imported from India and would then be produced by Thailand's state-owned drug maker.
The price of Plavix would drop by more than 90 percent to 6 baht (18 US cents) per tablet, he said.
Plavix is Bristol-Myers Squibb's biggest-selling medicine, which had annual sales of $6 billion before a copycat Canadian-manufactured version hit the market briefly in August.
Paul Cawthorne, local head of Doctors Without Borders, backed Mongkol's stance, saying the government was spending 11,580 baht ($347) per patient per month for Kaletra and could cut that bill by two thirds if it switched to a generic make.
"That's a perfectly legal method for them to ensure access to essential drugs for Thai people," he said.
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