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Drug patents remain a major FTA battleground

Bangkok Post, Thailand

Drug patents remain a major FTA battleground

By Prapasri Vasuhirun

8 December 2010

Drug patent restrictions by the United States and the European Union in trade negotiations with emerging countries will harm the Thai pharmaceutical industry and affect local patients, say researchers.

Demands to extend patent protection on drugs by up to 10 years would limit access by Thais to necessary medicines, increase the country’s healthcare budget and freeze the development of the local pharmaceutical industry, said Jiraporn Limpananont, head of a research team looking at the potential impact of a Thailand-US free trade area (FTA) agreement.

The extension demand first surfaced in 2006 in the sixth round of talks on the long-delayed trade pact with the United States.

Washington at the time called for intellectual property rights provisions related to drugs that were beyond the existing WTO agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (Trips).

In any event, the talks went nowhere and years of political instability have prevented much follow-up on an FTA.

The research team’s study on the impact of so-called Trips-Plus regulations shows that extra patent protection for HIV drugs would add one million baht to the cost of treating an HIV-positive Thai throughout his or her lifetime.

Data exclusivity (DE) is another measure that the US and EU are trying to push in order to protect their drug industries. DE would prohibit generic drug producers from seeing testing data of original drug manufactures for five to 10 years after a patent expires.

According to Usawadee Maleewong, a team researcher, DE could increase drug prices by 67% or about 700-800 billion baht and would reduce the proportion of local drugs in the domestic market by 300 billion baht.

"The issue of drug patents should be worrisome as the draft of the Thai-EU FTA negotiation is now awaiting ratification from Parliament. However, no one seems to know what the draft looks like," said Dr Jiraporn.

Dr Usawadee said drug patent restrictions in any FTAs should not exceed the WTO’s Trips provisions, and Thailand needed to develop its own intellectual property rights granting system to avoid repeating patent problems.