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The licensing of key drugs

  • Published: 16/06/2010 at 12:00 AM
  • Newspaper section: News
 

The government continues to do the right thing in the wrong way, regarding so-called compulsory licensing. Public Health Minister Jurin Laksanavisit announced the latest twist to this controversy on Monday after chairing a meeting of the National Health Security Office. He and the NHSO board had just voted to ignore the international patents on two medicines used to combat the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which leads to Aids. The extension of compulsory licensing means the makers of the three drugs - Efavirenz, Lopinavir and Ritonavir - will receive no patent payments from Thailand.

Mr Jurin's statement on the issue was short, dry and virtually free of any justification for the new action. He will rightly receive wide support for the decision from throughout Thailand. But the move by the new minister and his NHSO is troubling on two levels.

The first is that when the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva came to office in December 2008, one of its first actions was to pledge to issue compulsory licensing of drugs and other items only in the most dire circumstances. Drug companies, supported by a large number of foreign governments, had become concerned at serial patent-busting by the previous People Power coalition government and its predecessors. It would have been simple for the government to announce before Monday's NHSO meeting that it intended to grant lifetime compulsory licensing of the drugs concerned.

There never has been a question that the Thai government has acted illegally. Compulsory licensing is a valid, indeed necessary, codicil to international law and treaties. Profits cannot take precedence over life-saving action. But patent laws - like copyright and trademark - depend on enforcement by all governments, all the time, to protect everyone. Mr Jurin effectively ignored the spirit of international patent law by taking the issue to the NHSO in such a quiet manner.

Before the government authorised ignoring patents, about 4,578 patients used the drugs. According to the minister, that number has increased. Today, there are 35,606 Thai patients currently receiving treatment with Efavirenz or with a cocktail of the drugs Lopinavir and Ritonavir. If patent laws were strictly followed, the average cost of treatment for each patient would be 1,200 baht a month. But, because of compulsory licensing and the use of generic drugs, it is about 300 baht.

In all, the Public Health Ministry has ordered compulsory licensing of seven medicines - the two to fight Aids, four used against cancer, and a medicine used to treat a heart and blood disease. In all cases, the benefit to ailing Thai consumers is undeniable. Nor is there any lack of justification. Based on cost, on need and on widespread use of the compulsory licensed drugs, the government's action is clearly in the public interest.

That makes the government's silence on the issue more bizarre. Thailand is in a tiny minority of countries that has broken medicine patents at all. Far poorer nations have been most reluctant to take advantage of compulsory licensing.

It is likely there will be another round of Thailand-bashing from overseas because of the decision to licence the three anti-HIV drugs past the date their patents expire in 2012 and 2016.

Foreign opposition to the previous round of compulsory licensing was intense and highly embarrassing to the country. Enforcement of intellectual property treaties is a serious matter. If the government is concerned enough to break patent conventions over medicine, it must be confident enough to explain its decision fully.

original source: http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/38827/the-licensing-of-key-drugs