Saturday, March 8, 2008

A One-Side Argument Will NOT Ensure the Health of the Thai People

Bangkok's Drug War, Round Two


February 27, 2008

Thailand's military government may be gone, but its war on drug patents is still very much alive. Just ask the new Health Minister, Chaiya Sasomsup, who is thinking about restoring intellectual property rights to their rightful owners -- the pharmaceutical companies.

Mr. Chaiya, who took office this month, is trying to clean up the mess bequeathed by his predecessor, Mongkol na Songkhla. Citing a World Trade Organization loophole, Dr. Mongkol seized patents on Merck's HIV/AIDS drug Efavirenz in 2006. In 2007, he took another HIV/AIDS patent -- Abbott Laboratory's Kaletra -- and Sanofi-Aventis's patent for a heart drug, Plavix. His last act before leaving office last month was to sign an order to seize four cancer drug patents: two from Novartis, one from Sanofi-Aventis, and one from Roche.

Mr. Chaiya is worried both about Thai patients' access to new drugs and trade sanctions against Thailand for seizing patents. Fair enough: The WTO provision Dr. Mongkol used specifies patent seizures are allowed only after "efforts to obtain authorization from the right holder on reasonable commercial terms and conditions," or in cases of "national emergency." It's unclear that Thailand's actions fit either circumstance.

But woe be to Mr. Chaiya to utter such heresy in Thailand, where nonprofit groups such as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders have inculcated the public with scare stories about how Big Pharma has it in for Thai consumers. The NGO packhounds immediately flooded the Thai media with scare stories about Mr. Chaiya's proposal, forcing him to do a political backstep last week and say compulsory licensing policy has been "maintained." The matter is still under review.

What's missing here is the other side of the argument.

Many drug companies tier their pricing, charging developed countries more and developing countries such as Thailand, less. Thailand also faces a range of delivery problems that raise the ultimate cost of drugs to consumers, including high taxes on imports. Not least, seizing patents also puts patients at risk of importing nonbranded, lower-quality drugs.

Mr. Chaiya's job is to look after the health of the Thai people, not the political motivations of NGOs. It's clear what serves Thais best: drug companies that are incentivized, through the profit motive, to research and develop new drugs.

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