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Thailand Is Fed Up With High Drug Prices

Thailand will likely override international patents on more drugs, including those for cancer and heart disease, if pharmaceutical giants do not significantly cut their prices, the country's health minister says.

"We have thought about this for more than five years. It's long enough," said Mongkol na Songkhla, who is leading one of the biggest challenges to Big Pharma's patent rights in years.

He said price talks with major drug firms had become "easier" since Bangkok issued compulsory licenses allowing generic drug production on two HIV/AIDS drugs and a medicine for heart disease, the first time a developing nation has done so for such a treatment.

"If they reduce their drug price to our satisfaction, there is no need to make a compulsory license," Mongkol said in an interview. But he said it was too late for drug giant Merck, which had a license issued against its HIV/AIDS drug Efavirenz in November, and last week slashed the price in Thailand by nearly half to 700 baht per patient per month.

"If they had reduced the price before we announced the CL, it would have been more helpful. Why did they wait until we did something?" he said, adding that the license would stay in force.

The first 16,000 bottles of generic Efavirenz from Indian drug maker Ranbaxy Laboratories, part of a contract for 66,000 bottles, arrived in Thailand this month, he said.

Although legal under world trade rules, the licenses, which allow Thailand's military-appointed government to make or buy copycat versions of medicines needed for public health measures, stunned the drug makers who received no prior warning.

"This action is completely unprecedented anywhere in the world," an industry lobby group representing 38 foreign drug makers in Thailand said last week, adding that it believed another 11 drugs would be targeted.

Mongkol did not give a number, but he said other "essential medicines" to fight cancer, heart disease and other leading causes of death in Thailand were being studied.

"I Have Nothing To Lose"

Most of Thailand's 63 million people cannot afford patented drugs, he said, and the licenses issued so far are expected to save the government up to $24 million a year. "We have to provide health services to 49 million people and with limited resources. Reaching the neglected poor is our main concern," said Mongkol, a senior Health Ministry bureaucrat who was appointed minister after last September's military coup ousted pro-business Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mongkol, whose views on public health were forged while he served as a young doctor riding a horse to remote villages in Thailand's poor northeast, said the coup had presented an opportunity to act after a year of failed price negotiations.

"The true politician will not do this. They are afraid of some consequences," he said. "But I am not a politician and I have nothing to lose." While he has faced strong criticism outside of the country -- the Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial last week on what it called the "Theft in
Thailand" -- at home Mongkol's ministry scored the highest in a poll on the government's performance.

Mongkol said he did not believe major drug firms would go through with a threat to withhold new medicines if Thailand issued more licenses. He also rejected industry arguments that high prices are necessary because drug companies need to invest heavily in research and develop new medicines.

"R&D does not cost them so much, but they do a lot of marketing," he said, referring to one of his favorite books, The Truth About the Drug Companies, whose author argues the industry is a "vast marketing machine" that "lives off of government-funded research and monopoly rights".