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IP in Thailand: Who's the Real Pirate?

Alan Sipress

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."

By Alan Sipress  |  May 23, 2007; 12:19 PM ET  | Category:  Alan Sipress
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It sounds like the Thai Health Minister is a hypocrite to me! If he and his country hold the key for bird flu vaccines and won't give it to the international community for purely selfish reasons, then they are not as bad as the US and it's health care industry, but WORSE! Seriously, how can they play politics with a flu virus that has mortality rates between 30 - 50%!! Don't they realize their actions may result in hundreds of millions of people dead?!?
And yet somehow the Thai Health Minister thinks the United States is being selfish? Besides the fact that the Thai government increased their military spending (oh, this is after the military overthrew the democratically elected government) by over US $1 billion dollars, the Thai factory that will make the generic drug failed the most rudimentary international standards, leading to sub-par medicine and the development of an HIV/AIDS strand that is resistant to the drugs these so-called evil drug companies had worked so hard to develop!
Thailand's new military government should go back to being the military and leave the politics to professionals and politicians.

Posted by: Justin | May 23, 2007 5:23 PM

I think both are wrong in what the do. Firstly, why should Thailand pass on samples of the bird flu virus so that major US drug companies can develop drugs for which later, they will charges prices beyond the reach of the developing countries. So, in response to justins reply, millions will die even if the samples are passed on as only the wealthy will be able to afford them. How can anyone expect any person to rather die than buy generic drugs. For a country that preaches a christian faith, the US has a lot to learn. I am not Thai by the way but in my opinion, go ahead Thailand and manufacture your own drugs rather than stand by watching your people die.

The western powers are so quick to point fingers at copyright products and yet, as a westerner living in Thailand I can assure you it is mainly westerners who fuel the demand for cheap copies. None of them seem to complain about the copy CD's, etc, etc.

Posted by: Shane | May 23, 2007 9:32 PM

I'm impressed. The Thai delegation played this clueless American journo like pros. Mongkol's claim that he can't afford flu shots -- lapped up unquestioningly by Sipress -- is a naked lie. Mongkol comes from an old, rich Thai family. He is a millionaire from an aristocratic clan. His dishonesty reflects Thailand's disingenuous approach to the IP debate. Compulsory licensing mainly saves money for the Thai government, and that's why they're pushing it so hard. As for Mongkol's attempt to equate giving away patented drugs with sharing bird flu viral samples, that's just nonsensical. Did Thailand and Indonesia develop bird flu? If so, that would make a good story. Why don't you follow that up, Sipress.

Posted by: Suckers | May 23, 2007 10:56 PM

You shouldn't say the words Mongkol said is Thailand said or Thai people comments because he came from the coup not from the elections so his comment should mean nothings represented Thai people. We have been suffered from the revelution and won't accept this group of people !

Posted by: Kawin | May 23, 2007 11:55 PM

I think Thai gov 's action about these role , It 's misleading and would face the aftereffect in the future. When you 're confrontation with the man who bigger than you, you should known that how to survive. I really care for million of Thais if USA used GSP technique more than AIDs patients.

Posted by: voice | May 24, 2007 12:09 AM

Since Thailand has the bird flu virus,and they don't want to share it.Let them develop their own vaccine.Of course,they could just let the West research and develop the vaccine,save the money involved,then copy it.Who is going to stop them?

Posted by: mellow | May 24, 2007 1:05 AM

A number of people who commented on this article need to focus on the issue!
It's easy for you guys to accuse this military-backed govt as undemocratic, but isn't this Junta's minister trying to save the poors' lives?
Seriously, I think we should look at what this minister does rather than how he's got his office.
And I believe someone has pointed out that Dr.Mongkol comes from an rich old family, that is not quite true. Old family? Yes... Rich? Don't think so.
His asset which was declared to National Counter Corruption Committee was valued at about 4ml. Baht (about a hundred thousand dollars in real money.) He's not rich. The asset of former Public Health Minister under Thakisn's govt, Sudarat Keyurapan, was value at 700ml. Baht. Now, that's rich. And, that might be the reason why she didn't care about the well being of poor patients. Sure, she was the one that implemented universal health care scheme, but that was already in the constitution. The 30 Baht health care scheme was poorly designed, actually.
What Dr. Mongkol is doing is finding a way out for those under the universal health care plan.
I admit that using CL might be a for short term goal, but if these pharmaceutical companies really care about their consumers and cut down the price to the level that Thailand can afford, The Thai govt would accept it. What Merck is doing is the right way to do. Dr Mongkol said he would accept the offer from Merck if the price is right.
Also, the marketing cost of these drugs are about 2-3 times higher than the research cost. I'm sure if these companies cut down the marketing cost, these drugs wouldn't be as expensive as they are today.
BTW, is it possible that the military budget was increased because of the southern violence which ruining the lives of people in the south for 3-4 years?

Posted by: Leopold | May 25, 2007 1:02 AM

People who view the Thai government as trying to help the poor are being politically naive. Since coming to power, the post-coup government has tried a number of crude, populist policies to gain support (usually at the expense of Thailand's reputation) -- this just looks like another one of them. As for whether Mongkol is rich or not, his declaration of personal assets would seem meaningless, considering that he's part of a dictatorship with zero transparency. And even if you did believe his number, his claim that he can't afford flu shots would still appear to be a misrepresentation.

Posted by: Bonita | May 28, 2007 8:39 PM

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