Thai AIDS activists fear losing cheap drugs in free trade talks with Japan, US

Agence France-Presse

Thai AIDS activists fear losing cheap drugs in free trade talks with
Japan, US

6/27/2005

BANGKOK, June 26 (AFP): As Thailand prepares for new rounds of free trade
talks with Japan and the United States, AIDS activists are voicing
increasing concern that patients here could lose access to cheap,
life-prolonging drugs.

Thailand and Japan hold what could be the final round of negotiations from
June 27 in Tokyo, ahead of a possible July signing, while Thai and US
officials meet for talks from July 9 in the US state of Montana.

Supporters insist the pacts are essential to reviving the economy, which
contracted slightly in the first quarter.

But AIDS activists fear the deals could see them losing access to generic
medicines, and Thailand’s medical system could face new market pressures
that would make it harder for poor people to receive quality treatment.

Sixteen organisations including AIDS groups and the national human rights
commission have asked UN health officials to examine the proposed US deal,
which they fear could cut off access to desperately needed medicines.
The letter sent June 15 to Paul Hunt, a UN human rights commission special
rapporteur for health, urged him to use his influence to convince Thailand
to exclude drugmakers from the US free trade talks.

The groups said the Thai-US deal would include intellectual property
protections tougher than World Trade Organisation rules, effectively
restricting access to cheap generic drugs.

Thailand has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in Asia, with about
1.1 per cent of the population, or 700,000 people, infected by HIV. Only
50,000 of those people are receiving life-prolonging drugs, often cheap,
locally made generic medicines.

Sangsiri Treemanka, campaign coordinator with the AIDS Access Foundation,
said her group signed the letter because the free trade deal would give US
drug companies five extra years of patent protection that would block the
production of generics.

"If we accept that, it will be more difficult to access medicines, and
local generic drug makers will not be able to produce drugs for five
years," she said.

"That means we will still have high-priced drugs."

While visiting Bangkok in May, US Deputy Secretary of State Robert
Zoellick, the former trade representative who launched the US-Thai talks
in 2004, insisted the deal "would not interfere with their ability to have
access to medicines."

The foreign ministry, which is handling the talks, declined to comment on
specific issues but insisted the government tries to take all views into
account, a spokesman said.

Jacques-chai Chomthongdi, a research associate with policy group Focus on
the Global South, said the Japan trade agreement could weaken Thailand’s
medical services, already hard to access by the rural and urban poor.
If signed, it would make it easier for Japanese companies to create
private hospitals in Thailand to treat visiting Japanese patients.

"Promoting foreign customers coming to Thailand for medical treatment
might increase again the trend of doctors and nurses transferring from the
public sector to the private sector to serve foreign patients," he said.

Thailand has created a niche industry as a destination for patients from
rich countries who travel here seeking more affordable health care.

Thailand should spend 12 months holding a roving national consultation on
the trade deals, possibly leading to a referendum, because the result
would mean fairer trade deals for Thais, he said.

Thammasat University economist Somboon Siriprachai said it was difficult
to monitor the proposed deals because the talks were secret, and past
treaties with Australia and New Zealand took effect without parliamentary
approval.

"Everything is confidential until the end of the negotiations, so it’s too
late for us to argue or comment on any issues that might not be beneficial
to the Thai economy," he told AFP.

source: AFP