Big Pharma Goes After Generic AIDS Drugs in Thailand

Outraged protesters set up camp in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok today in response to the U.S. government’s renewed efforts to crack down on generic drugs being sold in Thailand. The protests are in response to a move made earlier this week by the U.S. Trade Representative Office (USTR), which placed Thailand on the Priority Watch List (PWL) for intellectual-property-rights infringement.

“On Monday, the USTR released its annual 301 Report, which includes a Watch List of countries that the USTR believes are threats to the global drug industry,” explain the advocates at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF). According to the AHF, Thailand is merely exercising “its World Trade Organization-granted rights to protect public health.”

“In elevating Thailand to ‘Priority Watch’ designation the highest urgency designation the USTR is seeking to punish the country despite the fact that Thailand adhered to international law in its efforts to increase access to affordable lifesaving AIDS and other drugs for its citizens,” said Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. “We commend the Government of Thailand for its legally permissible actions to safeguard the health and welfare of its people, and are saddened, but not surprised, that the office of the Trade Representative would bow so willingly to the drug industry’s lobbyists.”

Indeed, it appears once again that the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), Big Pharma’s trade group, is throwing around its considerable muscle and wielding its direct influence on the public policies of the U.S. government.

Last year, even the World Bank sided with the Thai government: “Because the drugs used in second-line therapy are patented, produced, and sold by multinational pharmaceutical corporations, Thailand must either pay high prices demanded by those monopolies or exercise its rights under World Trade Organization (WTO) treaties to grant compulsory license for the manufacture of the drug.”

These “compulsory licenses” are at the heart of the issue. The licenses, which are permitted by the WTO, allow governments to break Big Pharma’s patents on medications if it is deemed necessary and appropriate to protect the health of its citizens. Patent owners are still eligible to receive royalty payments under the system. According to the Thai government, they have only issued compulsory licenses on three drugs, but two of the three are AIDS drugs: Abbott’s Kaletra and Merck’s Efavirenz.

In fact, the Thai government only made the move to license generic alternatives to Kaletra after price-reduction negotiations between Abbott and the Thai government fell apart. Today, Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont defended his country’s actions, saying he felt confident he’d be “able to explain the decision to the world community.”

“Despite self-congratulatory propaganda characterizing the drug industry as champions of public health, PhRMA continues to undermine any effort to make lifesaving drugs more affordable to those that need them,” said the AHF’s Weinstein. “In its relentless pursuit of higher profits at the expense of lives, PhRMA, and all institutions that support its actions, have chosen to be enemies of the right to public health.”

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