Thailand is Within its Rights, Say US Reps

by Achara Ashayagachat & Apiradee Treerutkuarkul
Published at Bangkok Post

Some members of the US House of Representatives have demanded the US Trade Representative (USTR) remove Thailand from the Special 310 Priority Watch List (PWL) and respect its right to issue compulsory licences for drugs. Republican representative from California Henry Waxman, in a letter on Wednesday signed by 34 congressional colleagues, told USTR ambassador Susan Schwab to reply by July 9 on their call for her office to reassess the policy.

The letter said Thailand’s use of compulsory licensing to purchase generic versions of several drugs that were too costly for the government was a legitimate act within the international rights and obligations stated in the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (Trips), under the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

“It is difficult to interpret the decision [to add Thailand to the PWL in the annual USTR trade report] as anything other than retaliation for Thailand’s recent actions,” said the letter.

The letter urged the USTR to reassess its policy towards Thailand to reflect the US commitment and respect for the rights of other nations to implement their intellectual property rules in a way that supports public health.

Being put on the PWL has led to the elimination of the duty-free access Thailand currently receives under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) for gold jewellery and other exports to the US. This will take effect on July 1.

The GSP cut penalises the legitimate exercise of the right to issue compulsory licensing, the congressmen said in the letter.

“We call on you to take steps to remove Thailand from the Special 301 Priority Watch List and abandon any further retaliation for Thailand’s public health efforts, and ask you to commit to respecting the rights of WTO members to freely exercise public health flexibilities under the Trips and the Doha Declaration, including compulsory licensing,” they added.

The compulsory licences Thailand issued were for non-commercial government use and therefore Thailand was under no obligation to consult with the patent holders, they said.

The licences are for Aids and heart disease medications.

Washington-based Essential Action, a non-governmental organisation, backed the move by the US lawmakers.

The letter by the 35 congressmen reflected growing sentiment in congress that US policy on access to medicines must change, its director, Robert Weissman, said in a statement.

“By using legal methods to authorise price-lowering generic competition on overpriced Aids and heart-disease drugs, Thailand has shown the world what it means to place public health over commercial considerations,” he said.

Essential Action agreed with the lawmakers that the USTR had put Thailand on the priority watch list to retaliate for the decision to use compulsory licensing.

“USTR’s retaliatory placement of Thailand on the priority watch list was designed to punish the country for prioritising public health over the interests of Big Pharma [large pharmaceutical companies],” he said.

The trade measure was designed to send a message to other developing countries that they will be punished for issuing compulsory licences and utilising the public health flexibilities available in the WTO rules, he said.