Former U.S. President Bill Clinton supports Thailand's move to break patents on AIDS drugs to lower their cost for poor patients, the Thai health minister said Wednesday.

Public Health Minister Mongkol Na Songkhla, who met with Clinton on Tuesday, is visiting the U.S. to explain Thailand's decision to break patents on three drugs, including the AIDS drugs Kaletra produced by Abbott Laboratories and Efavirenz by Merck. Both are American companies.

Mongkol says the Thai government could only afford to provide costly patented AIDS-fighting drugs to a fifth of the 500,000 Thais living with HIV.

"Clinton explicitly gave Thailand ... full support for its decision that will help poor people in the country gain access to medication," Mongkol said in a telephone interview with television Channel 9, when asked if the former U.S. leader supported Thailand's decision.

In a statement released by the Ministry of Health, Mongkol said Clinton supported the decision to break patents "because it was done according to the rules to provide access to necessary drugs among low-income patients."

The William J. Clinton Foundation did not immediately respond to e-mailed queries seeking comment.

Mongkol's visit came after the U.S. government included Thailand among 12 countries on an annual "Priority Watch List" of nations where American companies face particular problems protecting intellectual property rights.

Countries on the list are under extra scrutiny and could face trade sanctions if violations worsen.

"We want to explain that it was an unfair punishment," Mongkol said.

He said Thailand's decision had not broken any international or domestic law.

Under World Trade Organization agreements, governments can issue compulsory drug licenses allowing the manufacture, import and sale of cheaper generic versions of patented drugs in case of a national public health emergency.

"The excessively high drug prices have obstructed us from achieving real universal access," Mongkol said at a news conference at the Clinton Foundation.

Washington says Thailand lacked "transparency" in announcing the compulsory licenses because it failed to consult with the drug producers.

The Clinton Foundation announced an agreement with drug companies Tuesday to lower "second-line" AIDS drug prices for people in the developing world, and to make a once-a-day AIDS pill available for less than US$1 (74 euro cents) a day.

The anti-retroviral drugs are needed by patients who develop resistance to first-line treatment and currently cost 10 times as much as first-line therapy, Clinton said.

Clinton's foundation negotiated the deals with generic drug makers Cipla Ltd. and Matrix Laboratories Ltd., and said they would mean an average savings of 25 percent in low-income countries and 50 percent in middle-income nations.

Clinton said the companies collaborated with the foundation to lower production costs, in part by securing lower prices for raw materials.

The U.S. has long had problems with piracy and copyright infringement in Thailand, particularly of movies, music, software, books and brand-name fashion wear.

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Clinton Foundation: http://www.clintonfoundation.org/