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Health sets out options for FTA talks

Bangkok Post

Health sets out options for FTA talks

Suchai: Drugs must remain affordable


21 June 2005

After letting health advocates air their opposition to the Thai-US free trade agreement (FTA) for more than a year, the Public Health Ministry yesterday unveiled its position on how Thailand should deal with drug patents.

At a meeting with Commerce Minister Thanong Bidaya, Public Health Minister Suchai Charoenratanakul outlined three options aimed at protecting Thai access to drugs.

Thai and US trade negotiators will hold their fourth meeting, this time in the US state of Montana, from July 10-15.

The health ministry’s three options are: removing all drug-related matters from the agenda, modifying the Doha Declaration endorsed by the World Trade Organisation to override patents through compulsory licensing or parallel imports, or indefinitely postponing the FTA.

It's understandable that bilateral trade talks are sensitive,'' Dr Suchai said after the meeting.But after all, Thai people’s right to access to affordable medicine and health care should be protected.’’

It is the first time that the top official at the ministry has taken a stance on the Thai-US FTA and said that the US push for intellectual property protection will affect the national public health policy.

Academics and activists have long feared that the FTA with the US would allow US drug firms to hold patent rights for five years longer than the WTO’s provision for 20 years protection.

The country’s capability to produce generic drugs for local consumption would be severely affected, they have argued.

Despite realising the urgent need to exercise compulsory licensing for essential medicine manufacturing such as anti-retroviral drugs for HIV-infected patients, Dr Suchai preferred a cautious approach by his ministry.

He said moving too strongly could have a negative impact on other sectors, agriculture in particular.

Mr Thanong said negotiations with the US on patent issues must not have negative impacts on the country’s health system, including the 30-baht health care scheme.

The free trade agreement should not create a stumbling block to affordable imported drugs and ingredients.

``I am still of the view that the FTA should minimise obstacles and make mutual benefits. Any trade privileges must be reciprocal,’’ he said.

He promised to have health ministry representatives with expertise on drug issues on the Thai negotiating team before taking any position.

Jiraporn Limpananont, a close watcher on health issues at Chulalongkorn University’s pharmaceutical science department, insisted a representative from the heath sector should participate in July’s round of talks, so that the country and people’s benefits would not be exploited.