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Merck, USTR ask Thailand to Reconsider Compulsory License on AIDS Drug

By issuing their first compulsory license on an AIDS drug, Thailand was trying to buck the pressure from the big drug companies, and stimulate generic competition.
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Encouraged by Merck, the United States Trade Representative and the US Department of State are asking Thailand to reconsider it's recent decision to issue a compulsory license on patents on the AIDS drug Efavirenz. The Thai government announced the decision right before World AIDS' Day. Shortly thereafter Ambassador Karan Bhatia, the Deputy USTR, called the Thai Embassy in Washington, DC. to deliver a message described as "bullying" by Thai government officials. The US Embassy in Thailand also registered complaints.

Merck CEO Richard T Clark asked

the US government for help

PhRMA chief Billy Tauzen

mobilized opposition

USTR head Susan Schwab


US Ambassador Skip Boyce

organized opposition

in Bangkok

Deputy USTR Karan Bhatia

pressured the Thai embassy

in Washington, DC

Thai Aids patient

(58,000 died in 2003)

The USTR intervention has prompted a number of public health groups, including ours, to object.

The pressure from Bhatia and other US government officials on Thailand is not new. Earlier this year the World Health Organization removed William Aldis as the WHO country representative to Thailand, because the United States objected to his criticisms of the US demands for tough intellectual property protections for medicines in new trade deal between the US and Thailand.

For some history and context, read Susannah Markandya's informative Timeline of Trade Disputes involving Thailand and access to medicine, which traces US pressure on Thailand from an early 1985 initiative by Pfizer, then backed by the Reagan Administration. Since then every US President has pressured Thailand to increase drug prices. For example, in 1993, President Clinton's USTR head Mickey Kantor obtained an agreement that required the Thai government abandon collection of economic data from the pharmaceutical companies, restrict compulsory licensing of patents, and create a non-patent system of market exclusivity for pharmaceuticals.

By 2000, pressure on Thailand became an embarrassment for then Vice President Al Gore, who was seeking the democratic nomination for president. Gore had already faced problems over his earlier efforts to pressure South Africa on it's patent law. After President Clinton had announced a new public health friendly trade policy during a chaotic 1999 Seattle WTO ministerial, USTR was asked to send a message to Thailand that things had changed. But a USTR official named Sean Murphy called the Thai Embassy in Washington, to tell them that nothing had really changed, other than some public relations efforts that did not reflect real changes in policy. This backfired when AIDS treatment activists found out, and later US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky was compelled to write to Thai Minister of Commerce Supachai Panitchpakdi, stating that "if the Royal Thai Government determines that issuing a compulsory license is required to address its health care crisis, the United States will raise no objection, provided the compulsory license is consistent with the provisions of the WTO Agreement TRIPS."

Today USTR is right back in the same situation, only with much greater history and context. Thailand is one of the few developing countries that is making a serious effort to provide treatment to AIDS patients. They can't do it over the long haul without access to cheap copies of the new AIDS drugs. By issuing their first compulsory license on an AIDS drug, Thailand was trying to buck the pressure from the big drug companies, and stimulate generic competition. This also will help US taxpayers, who are spending billions of dollars to buy AIDS drugs for the Bush Administration's PEPFAR program.

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