IP in Thailand: Who's the Real Pirate?
Once an epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, Thailand won international acclaim in recent years for its aggressive health campaign to address HIV, reducing the prevalence of infections and improving treatment for those with the virus. But when Thailand announced last year that it was seeking to cut the cost of treatment by allowing the sale of generic versions of two drugs for fighting HIV, the U.S. government and pharmaceutical industry yelled foul.
At the heart of this dispute are a pair of questions: When can patents be overridden for the sake of public health? And does violating patents now end up quashing the innovative drive that leads to life-saving medicine later on?
Thailand has been in negotiations with Abbott Laboratories and Merck & Co., which own the rights to the drugs, to see if they can reach a deal. But the deadlock continues. U.S. officials have alleged that Thailand is undercutting respect for patents. They put the kingdom on a watch list that could weaken its international trading position. Against this backdrop, Thai Health Minister Mongkol Na Songkhla led a high-level delegation this week to Washington for urgent talks with U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and U.S. Deputy Trade Representative John K. Veroneau.
Between meetings, Mongkol and his seven-member entourage stopped by Tuesday afternoon to see us at the Washington Post to talk about Thailand's take on intellectual property.
Mongkol and his aides told us they understand the importance of patents. They say they're wary of undermining innovation. But they say the poor of Thailand cannot afford the AIDS drugs, which cost about $2,200 per year of treatment. Thailand's goal is to create a tiered pricing system with the country's middle-class and foreign residents paying market rates while the poor get the drugs for much less.
Thailand says it can get generic versions of Abbott's Kaletra and Merck's Stocrin from India and may also produce these domestically. If these companies want to do business in Thailand, they should offer their drugs for no more than 5 percent over the generic cost, he said.
As our session with the minister continued, it took a provocative twist, raising questions about who really respects IP. The conversation turned to another dispute, this one over bird flu. Developing countries, led by Indonesia and including Thailand, have criticized the global system under which governments share samples of the avian flu virus with the World Health Organization and its collaborating labs. Studying these samples is crucial for understanding the virus, mapping its progress and perhaps predicting the outbreak of a pandemic that could kill tens of millions of people worldwide.
But the virus samples are also used by drug companies to make vaccines which most developing countries can't afford. In his 66 years of life, Mongkol said he'd never had a regular flu shot. "It's too expensive for me," the minister said.
Indonesia and Thailand, on the front line of the bird flu epidemic, say they never gave their permission for the virus samples to be used commercially and refused to send any more to the WHO until their interests are protected. Thailand wants all countries to be guaranteed a minimum supply of vaccine.
Dr. Suwit Wibulpolprasert, Thailand's senior advisor on disease control, told us that the world has been robbing developing countries of their rights by using the virus samples without permission. He noted that the U.S. and other developed countries get upset when their intellectual property is pirated by developing countries, such as when CDs, DVDs and software get copied illegally in Asia. Now, Washington is also upset about violations of the patents for the AIDS drugs.
What about the rights of developing countries to their virus samples, he asked. Using these samples without providing a benefit to the countries of origin is nothing less, he said, than "biopiracy."
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