Thai Ministry to Recommend Ignoring Patents on Cancer Drugs
By NICHOLAS ZAMISKA
The Wall Street Journal
March 10, 2008 2:42 p.m.
HONG KONG -- Thailand's new health minister announced Monday that he would urge the Thai government to continue to ignore patents on several cancer drugs, disappointing big pharmaceutical companies that had hoped Bangkok might roll back a policy of overriding patents in the name of public health.
The drugs' makers include Roche Holding AG and Novartis of Switzerland and Sanofi-Aventis of France.
Suphan Srithamma, a spokesman for the Thai health ministry, said that Minister Chaiya Sasomsup has decided to support the previous government's decision to ignore four cancer drug patents in a bid to cut the cost of medicines for the Thai people. The health ministry will make its recommendation to the Thai cabinet Tuesday, according to Dr. Suphan.
Thailand's previous health minister, Mongkol na Songkhla, decided in early January to issue compulsory licenses for four drugs: Novartis's imatinib, also known as Gleevec; Novartis's breast cancer drug letrozole, whose brand name is Femara; Sanofi-Aventis's docetaxel, marketed as Taxotere and used to fight lung and breast cancer; and Roche's erlotinib, whose trade name is Tarceva.
Novartis proposed that same month to offer Gleevec free of charge to poor Thai patients, possibly making a compulsory license unnecessary, according to the ministry of health. A Novartis spokeswoman wasn't available for comment.
Martina Rupp, a spokeswoman for Roche, based in Basel, said the Swiss company's Thai subsidiary is currently in talks with the government "to support greater access to medicines for Thai patients." Ms. Rupp added that Roche "has been, and always will be, open to discussion and dialogue with the appropriate authorities."
Jean-Marc Podvin, a spokesman for Sanofi-Aventis in Paris, said that his company hasn't yet received definitive word from the Thai government, but that "we still remain optimistic" about the negotiations. Mr. Podvin added that Sanofi has "some concerns about the quality of the generic" version of docetaxel, which had world-wide sales of 801.87 billion in 2007, that would be used to replace Sanofi's drug in Thailand.
[SHORT-SIGHTED EUROPEAN DRUG COMPANIES THAT CONCEDE THEIR PATENT RIGHTS TO THE THAI GOVERNMENT, AS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR PHILANTHROPY AND POSITIVE PUBLIC RELATIONS, JEOPARDIZE THE PRIVATE PROPERTY BASIS FOR PATENTS, AND HARM THE OVERALL PURPOSE OF INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY INTERNATIONALLY]
[ALTERNATIVELY, DUE TO THE PRESSURES OF EUROPE'S CULTURE OF CORPORATISM, WHEREIN COMPANIES SET INDUSTRIAL & TECHNOLOGY POLICY WITH GOVERNMENT, THESE EUROPEAN DRUG COMPANIES MAY ACTUALLY BE ASSISTING SOME WITHIN THE EU COMMISSION TO DIMINISH THE VALUE OF PATENTS, FOR POLITICAL PURPOSES. THIS SOUNDS FANTASTIC, BUT IT IS NOT OUT OF THE QUESTION].
Teera Chakajnarodom, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association --the multinational drug industry's trade group in Bangkok, which counts among its members the three European drug companies whose patents are at stake--condemned the Thai health minister's move.
"This is not good for the country. The image of Thailand will drop further," he said. "They should bring back the image of Thailand as a country that respects" intellectual-property rights.
Ever since a bloodless military coup in Thailand in September 2006, the military-installed government had been battling big pharmaceutical companies, threatening to sidestep their patents on drugs for AIDS and other diseases if they didn't drop the price of their medications. The Thai government argued that since the country's poor population couldn't afford the lifesaving drugs, and the government didn't have sufficient funds to cover their cost, drug companies should put public health before profit and cut the cost of the medications.
The drug companies argued that they had already made price concessions and needed to profit from their inventions to maintain the incentive to innovate. After the country's democratic elections last December, which ushered in a new government, hopes were raised that the new officials would soften the country's hardball tactics, which some within the international drug industry had feared might encourage other developing nations to follow suit and ignore drug patents.
Although members of Thailand's new government worried that the country could face harsh action from the U.S. government unless they rescinded the compulsory licenses, U.S. officials familiar with the situation say there wasn't any plan to retaliate against Thailand.
--James Hookway in Bangkok contributed to this article.