Thai health minister reverses reversal on compulsory licensing

Thailand's new Health Minister Chaiya Sasomsap has decided to go ahead with issuing compulsory licensing on cancer drugs, reversing his previous stance that the controversial tactic to lower drug prices should be reviewed, media reports said Tuesday. ( dpa )

"The standpoint of the Public Health Ministry is to protect the benefits of patients, not of business," Chaiya told The Nation newspaper.

That did not seem to be Chaiya's stance a month ago. When the new health minister took up his post on February 6 he ordered a review of his predecessor's controversial decision to issue compulsory licensing for four cancer drugs after doing so last year for two HIV/AIDS anti-viral drugs.

Chaiya's initial opposition to compulsory licenses sparked criticism from Thai and international health organizations, who argued that he was undermining Thailand's pioneering role in the struggle for the rights to access cheap drugs for the poor in developing countries.

Thailand's Rural Doctors' Society also launched a campaign to gather 20,000 signatures from the public to launch an impeachment process against Chaiya.

Thailand's use of compulsory licensing - a measure under the World Trade Organization (WTO) which allows a government to infringe patent protection for drugs deemed essential to public health by importing cheaper generic imitations - has irked the US and European pharmaceutical industry and threatened trade relations.

Former health minister Mongkol Na Songkhla argued the measure was necessitated by the country's universal health scheme, that promises cheap medical treatment to almost half the population.

On January 4, Mongkol issued compulsory licensing on the four cancer drugs - Erlotinib, Docetaxel, Imatinib and Letrozole - but only after holding 13 rounds of talks with the patent holders to have them reduce their prices on the life-saving drugs for patients under the universal health scheme.

A generic copy of Docetaxel, which the government will import from India, costs just 1,245 baht (40 dollars) per 80 milligrams, compared with 25,000 baht (794 dollars) for the original.

Chaiya justified his reversal of position on compulsory licensing for cancer drugs by pointing out that the measure would save Thailand 3 billion baht (95.2 million dollars) over the next five years.

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