Paris protest against ending drug licensing: Threats of retaliation overblown, they say

by Achara Ashayagachat
Published at Bangkok Post

Foreign activists and academics have lent their support to the struggle by the Thai civic sector to save compulsory licensing (CL) of patented medicines. Health Minister Chaiya Sasomsab is pushing for a review on the CL of three cancer drugs, which was approved by his predecessor Mongkol na Songkhla.

On Wednesday, members of the group Act-Up staged a peaceful protest in front of the Thai embassy in Paris. On the same day, activists and academics from various institutions issued a letter to Mr Chaiya, urging him to resist pressure from foreign pharmaceutical firms to abandon CL.

”Thailand’s review of compulsory licences on three high-priced cancer drugs should not be distorted by groundless threats of potential trade sanctions from the brand-name pharmaceutical industry,” the letter said.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) said this week it would push the US Trade Representative to impose trade sanctions if Thailand implements compulsory licensing and imports low-cost generic drugs.

However, activists said the threat has no basis in law or political reality. A WTO mission had found that Thailand’s policy was legal, said a letter signed by Essential Action, American Jewish World Service, the American Medical Students Association, Global Aids Alliance, Health GAP, Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), Oxfam America and the Student Global Aids and Trade Justice Campaigns.

They said that PhRMA always asks for more than it has any hope of achieving.

In 2006, for example, PhRMA asked that Canada and Germany be designated Priority Foreign Countries, a request the US Trade Representative rejected. Threats that PhRMA would push for Priority Foreign Country status were less significant than they may seem, activists said.

They said leading US presidential contenders should take a more critical stance towards the pharmaceutical industry than US President George W Bush.

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama of the Democratic party have endorsed poor countries’ rights to affordable, quality-assured generic drugs for important health needs.

John McCain of the Republican party has not issued a policy on the matter, but he has been critical of the brand-name pharmaceutical industry, recently characterising the companies as ”the big bad guys”.

Regardless of who is the next US president, it is certain that the next US administration will be less responsive to pharmaceutical industry interests than the current administration.

It was also likely that the next administration would support efforts in developing countries to speed up the introduction of generic competition to make essential medicines available.

A senior Thai diplomat told the Bangkok Post that there was only a slight possibility that the US would petition the World Trade Organisation (WTO) over Thailand’s CL implementation as the stakes were too high and the case might damage the industry if Thailand won.

Taking legal action at the multilateral level needs careful consideration – in this case trade issues relating to public health are a sensitive topic worldwide and if the chance of a US win is not 100%, it should not take the risk because there are several developing countries which might benefit from the ruling, he said.

Mr Chaiya yesterday said he expected a final decision on CL would come in a month.

He confirmed that the permanent secretaries of Health, Commerce and Foreign Affairs agreed that CL on cancer drugs be kept intact.

He said he would discuss the matter with the commerce and foreign affairs ministers before forwarding any proposals to cabinet for approval.