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Thailand Expected to Break Patents on Two Drugs

Thailand's public health minister next week will announce details of government plans to break the patents on two drugs, reportedly one used to treat HIV/AIDS and another for heart disease, a ministry official said Thursday.

The official was responding to reports in the Thai press that Public Health Minister Mongkol Na Songkhla had said that Thailand would declare compulsory licensing for at least two drugs because their high cost constituted a crisis for the health sector.

Mongkol declined to name the drugs or give further details, and other officials also refused to say more when contacted Thursday.

An announcement would come Monday, said a spokeswoman for the Public Health Ministry, who insisted on not being named because of the plan to release the information on Jan. 29.

According to international trade rules, a government may issue a compulsory license to manufacture a generic drug in case of a national public health emergency, even if it has not licensed it from the patent holder.

Several countries have produced drugs to fight HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, under compulsory licensing.

More than 500,000 people in Thailand are living with HIV, according the UNAIDS, the U.N. agency that coordinates the global fight against the deadly virus.

Dr. David Wilson, the medical co-ordinator in Thailand for Medicins San Frontieres-Belgium, a medical non-governmental organization, said it would not be surprising if the drug to treat HIV was Kaletra, which is produced by Abbott Laboratories.

"Kaletra is the obvious candidate. It is an essential drug for people with HIV, and as time goes by, more people will need it," he said.

Kaletra is a so-called "second-line" drug, used after "first-line" therapies start to lose their effectiveness.

Post Today, a Thai-language newspaper, cited an unnamed medical activist as saying that the drug for treatment of heart conditions was likely to be Plavix, which is sold by Sanofi-Aventis and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Late last year, Thailand ordered compulsory licensing for Efavirenz, an antiretroviral AIDS drug.

A report issued jointly in August last year by the World Bank and the Public Health Ministry suggested it made economic sense for Thailand to exercise compulsory licensing.

The high cost of many commercially licensed HIV drugs is a strong incentive for compulsory licensing, said Wilson.

"If they are going to treat all people who need that drug (Kaletra), it needs to be cheaper," he said.

However, Thailand's Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers Association reacted harshly to what it said were plans to force more companies to relinquish patents.

The Public Health Ministry was targeting other drugs in addition to those for AIDS, including antibiotics and treatments for heart disease and cancer, its president, Teera Chakajnarodom, said in a statement.

"Leading members of the association ... have confirmed to me that their plans for further investment in Thailand will be put on hold pending a review of the foreign investment climate," Teera said. "They are concerned about continuing to invest in a country where the government cannot provide a basic guarantee for the safety of their assets."

"We fully appreciate the health challenges and financial constraints that the Ministry of Public Health faces. However, the best response to this situation is to engage constructively with industry to find a mutually agreeable solution," he said.