Thailand to talk with U.S. about drug patents after being targeted for copyright violations

by The Associated Press
Published at International Herald Tribune

BANGKOK, Thailand: Thailand’s health minister will travel to Washington to explain the decision to break a patent on an AIDS drug produced by an American company, an official said Tuesday.

On Monday, the U.S. government included Thailand among 12 countries on an annual “Priority Watch List” of nations where American companies face particular problems with protection of intellectual property rights.

Countries on the list are under extra scrutiny and could face trade sanctions if violations worsen.

“This reflects the concerns that Thailand’s measures in the protection of copyrights and intellectual property rights have been weaker during the past period,” U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce told a news conference.

Boyce said the breaking of the patent on the AIDS drug was one of the concerns that prompted Washington to place Thailand under extra scrutiny.

According to World Trade Organization agreements, governments can issue compulsory licenses allowing the manufacture, import and sale of cheaper generic versions of drugs in case of a national public health emergency. Such actions have been taken by several countries for AIDS medicines.

Thailand in January issued compulsory licenses for two drugs — a heart disease medicine and the AIDS drug Kaletra produced by U.S. drug maker Abbott Laboratories. Public Health Minister Mongkol Na Songkhla said the decision was made because the government could only afford to provide the expensive AIDS drug to one-fifth of the 500,000 people living with HIV in Thailand.

Abbott responded by declaring it would not introduce any new drugs in Thailand because its intellectual property rights were not honored. The company later offered to sell AIDS drugs at a lower price, apparently in exchange for the lifting of the compulsory licensing.

“The Thai health minister will travel to the U.S. in the coming weeks to explain (the situation) to Washington,” Deputy Prime Minister Kosit Punpiemrat told reporters Tuesday after a weekly Cabinet meeting. He provided no further details.

A U.S.- based health activist group, Essential Action, called Washington’s stance “outrageous, cynical and shameful.”

“By using legal methods to authorize 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,” the group said in a statement. “The message is that Thailand should back down — but worse, that other countries should not dare to follow Thailand’s example.”

Washington has long had problems with piracy and copyright infringement in Thailand, particularly of movies, music, software, books and brand-name fashion wear. The country was on the Priority Watch List in 1989-1992 but has been on the less serious “Watch List” for the past 15 years.

Thailand’s current government was installed after a military coup last September ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.