February 22, 2008
THAI-ING TO CHANGE THE SYSTEM
Thai protest against unfair U.S. trade agreement—and they can do it again
This week, U.S. AIDS advocates joined allies in Thailand and throughout the world in calling on Thailand's newly elected ruling party to continue to enforce compulsory licenses on three cancer drugs. Thai Minister of Public Health Chaiya Sasomsab, under pressure from PhRMA, the U.S. brand-name pharmaceutical industry trade association, voiced plans this month to end compulsory licensing for three generic cancer drugs.
Failing to enforce the licenses would undermine Thailand's struggle to produce generic medication, a critical aspect of the country's fight against AIDS. PhRMA had threatened to push the U.S. to impose sanctions if Thailand stops enforcing the licenses. In their letter to Sasomsab, U.S. advocates called PhRMA's tactic a bluff that "has no basis in U.S. law or political reality." The letter was signed by more than 30 groups including Health GAP, Oxfam, Housing Works and Essential Action.
"We wanted to communicate the flimsiness of PhRMA's threat and to voice how the U.S. public views the pharmaceutical industry," said Sarah Rimmington, an attorney with Essential Action, which drafted the letter.
Even though compulsory licenses are legal under international law, many countries have hesitated to implement them for fear of retribution. Thailand's compulsory licensing policy, enacted in 2006 under the military junta that took control of Thailand in a military coup—and under accordance with the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement— temporarily suspends patent protections for some older medications and allows production of cheaper ones, helping to treat people with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
The best medicine
One in a hundred people in Thailand has HIV/AIDS, and affordable antiretrovirals have decreased the number of deaths due to AIDS-related causes by 80 percent. Compulsory licensing prompted Abbott Pharmaceuticals to lower its price on Kaletra in Thailand, but not other countries, showing that the competition worked to exert pressure. Continuing Thailand's compulsory licensing program is important, not just for the Thai people, but also symbolically, giving other countries the courage to defy Big Pharma and follow the TRIPS and Doha agreements.
"We know there are benefits already of compulsory licensing and would hate to see that stop and not be shared globally," Rimmington said. "It would really be a blow to the world if progress is stalled in Thailand."
While officials inside the Thai government have determined that compulsory licensing can't be revoked, The Bangkok Post reported, there is still the chance that the new health minister might take action to bypass the patents of drugs in the future.
Should Sasomsab go through with ending compulsory licenses, he's sure to incur the wrath of well-mobilized patient advocacy groups throughout Thailand and the world. In 2006, such organizations fought hard for the compulsory licenses and know that they are both legal and worth fighting for.
To get involved in the fight to maintain Thailand's compulsory licenses, contact Sarah Rimmington at email@example.com.