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Cheap HIV Drugs: Scepticism over Thaksin’s pledge

The Nation, Bangkok

CHEAP HIV DRUGS: Scepticism over Thaksin’s pledge

By Rungrawee C Pinyorat

July 13 2004

FTA talks seen as huge threat despite PM saying drugs won’t be in US pact

Critics voiced doubt yesterday over Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s promise to provide equitable access to life-saving drugs for all people with HIV/Aids in Thailand, saying it was a pipe dream while disputes over patented drugs remain unresolved.

The government has been able to provide treatment for people with HIV/Aids through its national health-coverage programme because it makes generic drugs - copies of US drugs not covered by patents in Thailand.

But Jiraporn Limpananont, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, warned that the free-trade agreement Thailand is negotiating with the United States could lead to the extension of patent periods for drugs produced by US pharmaceutical firms.

That could instead turn the tide and reverse the progress Thailand has made caring for people living with the disease.

Representatives of Medecins Sans Frontieres, the humanitarian group which won the Nobel Peace Prize, voiced the same concerns.

"For a developing country such as Thailand which has a limited healthcare budget, we could never afford the pricey patented drugs for HIV/Aids treatment," Jiraporn said.

Thaksin, in his speech at the opening ceremony of the International Aids Conference on Sunday night, pledged a strong commitment to "support universal coverage of anti-retroviral treatment to people with HIV and Aids".

The current treatment regimen is based on a generic fixed-dose combination produced by the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation. The price of locally-made drugs is about 10 times cheaper than the patented brand name medications.

The prime minister vowed last week that drug patents would not be included in the Thai-US FTA negotiations, but civic groups are still sceptical about his promise.

"The negotiations are carried out behind closed doors and the public is only informed of the end result. We are still very much concerned," Jiraporn explained.

Nimit Thien-Udom, director of the Aids Access Foundation, said Thaksin "speaks like a politician. We will have to closely monitor [the government’s action]."

"If Thailand is to scale up its Aids treatment programme, it must be allowed access to cheap generic versions of patented drugs in the future", said Mohga Kamal Smith, health policy adviser for Oxfam GB, a UK humanitarian organisation

Smith said she was afraid the US would go country by country and use FTA negotiations to increase protection for patented drug to benefit its giant pharmaceutical producers.