Thailand wants to provide free medicines for drugs and heart disease to its poorest citizens. That sounds good to me. Apparently my government doesn’t agree:
Thailand’s Public Health Minister said U.S. trade officials didn’t relent on their opposition to his plan to copy drugs made by companies including Abbott Laboratories and Merck & Co. after meetings in Washington.
Mongkol Na Songkhla met with Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative John K. Veroneau yesterday in an effort to avoid retaliation against a plan to invoke a World Trade Organization provision allowing nations to approve generic drugs made without the patent owners’ consent. (Bloomberg)
How noble of the US, to defend the rights of Big Pharma over the lives of poor Thais. In March the US put Thailand on a list with eleven other countries as among the world’s worst infringers of intellectual property. Thailand meet China. China meet Thailand. Being on the Priority Watch List increases the chances Thailand will lose trade privileges, something it desperately needs. They were told they could get off the list if they cancel the licenses they claimed uner World Trade Organization provisions allowing abrogation of existing licensing requirements in the event of national need. Apparently the lives of poor Thais are not considered a national need by the US State Department.
At issue are the AIDS drugs Kaletra (Abbott) and Stocrin (Merck) and Sustiva (Bristol-Myers Squibb) and the heart medication Plavix (Bristol Myers, Sanofi Aventis).
Thailand says copying the drugs will allow the government to provide free medicine to a larger share of its poorest citizens. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers’ Association, a drug industry trade group, says taking that step would remove the incentive to invest in research, and that its members would retaliate by not introducing new drugs in Thailand.
“We tried to explain our objectives with compulsory licenses, but they talk about how unpleased and upset the drug companies feel about our policy,” said Vichai Chokevivat, chairman of the Government Pharmaceutical Organization, who joined Mongkol in Washington. “We are quite concerned after talking to them.”
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is also planning to issue similar compulsory licenses for Merck’s Stocrin. So this isn’t just about some poor people in Thailand. It’s about an international system of patent protection that is more and more stacked in favor of large drug companies:
The U.S. is opposed to mechanisms that weaken intellectual property rights, said Elizabeth Webster, principal research fellow at Melbourne’s Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research in Australia.
“The U.S. is a net gainer of the patent system, so they are very strong in enforcing it and framing it,” Webster said in an interview this month. “It’s becoming more than a war of chemical research. They obviously think there is big money in maintaining the strength of the patent system and ensuring it’s not diluted.”
California Congressman Henry Waxman is working to remove Thailand from the Priority Watch List. Good for him. But this is about more than that. Big Pharma claims credit for drug research and development it doesn’t do or does badly. Most of the underlying research is done by academics with federal grant money and much of the drug discovery by small biotech companies who license it to the big boys (both influenza antivirals Tamiflu and Relenza are examples). Bit Pharma’s claim that high drug prices and the patent system insure innovation is the usual bullshit from those wishing to perpetuate government sanctioned quasi-monoplies. It’s no wonder Big Pharma is a big campaign contributor to US office seekers. They get a return many fold for every buck they send as pay offs to Joe Lieberman and his cronies in Congress.
Meanwhile, if you are a poor Thai, you don’t have a friend in the US State Department. But at least you will die for a principle.