KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations.

U.S. Trade Representative Places Thailand on Priority Watch List in Annual Report

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in its annual report released on Monday placed Thailand on its Priority Watch List in part because the country recently issued compulsory licenses for several medicines, including two antiretroviral drugs, CongressDaily reports. The annual report examines how adequately countries protect U.S. intellectual property rights, according to CongressDaily (Vaughan, CongressDaily, 4/30). The Thai government in November 2006 and January issued compulsory licenses to produce lower-cost versions of Merck's antiretroviral Efavirenz and Abbott Laboratories' antiretroviral Kaletra, respectively. Since then, the government and drug companies have continued negotiations (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/27).

The trade representative's report cited an "overall deterioration" in the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights in Thailand, CongressDaily reports (CongressDaily, 4/30). According to the report, which reviews 87 countries, the U.S. is "concerned about the weak protection against unfair commercial use of undisclosed test and other data" submitted by drug companies seeking marketing approval for their products, as well as "pharmaceutical patent approvals" by the Thai Department of Intellectual Property (Report text, 4/30). The report said that in late 2006 and 2007, "there were further indications of a weakening of respect for patents, as the Thai Government announced decisions to issue compulsory licenses for several patented pharmaceutical products." The report also said that although the U.S. "acknowledged a country's ability to issue such licenses in accordance with" World Trade Organization regulations, the "lack of transparency exhibited in Thailand represents a serious concern." The report did not mention any drugs by name but "appeared to be referring" to the compulsory licenses for Efavirenz and Kaletra, according to Reuters (Reuters, 4/30). Thailand, which was the only country to be added to the Priority Watch List this year, will be monitored to "encourage and maintain" effective intellectual property protections, according to the report (The Nation, 5/1).

Comments
"I'm not going to comment on whether or not Thailand's actions are consistent with the WTO," Victoria Espinel, assistant USTR for intellectual property rights, said, adding, "We have a lot of concerns about the process Thailand has used and the transparency of the situation." Some health advocates criticized USTR's move. James Love -- executive director of Knowledge Ecology International, which previously was known as the Consumer Project on Technology -- said, "The sanctioning of countries for using legitimate and important flexibilities in the (WTO) agreement brings shame to all U.S. citizens who are increasingly seen in Thailand and elsewhere as bullies and hypocrites" (CongressDaily, 4/30).

The report is available online.

Abbott Set 'Bad' Precedent for Global Patent Issues, Editorial Says
Thailand's decision to issue a compulsory license for Kaletra "goes against every principle of intellectual property protection" under WTO regulations, but Abbott has "undermined its own credibility" because of how it has dealt with the situation, a Wall Street Journal editorial says. According to the Journal, "antipharmaceutical activists have looked for years for a government pliable enough to test" WTO regulations on compulsory licensing. The groups "want to set a precedent that erodes property rights, with a goal of selling drugs at cut-rate prices everywhere," the editorial says. The "only real weapon" a drug company has in a patent battle is to withdraw from an "offending country's market," the editorial says. However, by "threatening withdrawal and then reversing itself under pressure, Abbott has ... made it harder for other companies to take a stronger stand." Large drug manufacturers have become "global whipping boys, but their therapies can't be produced on a government whim," the editorial says, concluding, "The Abbott precedent is a bad one for global property rights, and the biggest losers will be the world's poor and sick" (Wall Street Journal, 4/30).

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