Thailand-US: AIDS drugs take centre-stage at trade talks

THAILAND-U.S.: AIDS Drugs Take Centre-Stage at Trade Talks

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jun 28 (IPS) - After tiptoeing around the issue for months, Thailand’s trade negotiators will have to finally reveal where they stand on the life-or-death question of producing cheap, generic anti-AIDS drugs.

The debate over intellectual property rights (IPR), which includes protecting the patents of expensive medications produced by pharmaceutical giants, is due to feature prominently during the next round of talks to shape a Thai-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA).

’’IPR negotiations are expected to be taken up during four days of the five days set aside for the talks,’’ Witoon Lianchumroon, coordinator of FTA Watch, an umbrella organisation of groups opposed to bilateral trade agreements, told IPS. ’’We will learn if they support cheap anti-retroviral drugs for AIDS patients or not.’’

The next round of Thai-U.S. FTA talks will be the fourth between the trade negotiators of the two countries and will take place Jul. 10-15 in the northern U.S. state of Montana.

Thailand’s public health ministry has also revealed just how concerned it is over the impending talks by going public for the first time. Public Health Minister Suchai Charoenratanakul told the media last week that ’’Thai people’s right to access to affordable medicine and health care should be protected.’’

Concern about the fate of the anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) that Thailand’s state pharmaceutical agency produces for the benefit of locals and foreigners has dogged these talks since they began in June 2004.

And concern gathered momentum during the third round of talks, held in the Thai resort town of Pattaya in April, when intellectual property was added to the agenda of 23 other free trade-related issues that Washington and Bangkok are discussing.

Thailand’s interest in a free trade deal with the United States grew out of the value of two-way trade between the two countries, estimated at over 21 billion U.S. dollars in 2003. Thailand enjoys the edge on this front.

The fear among FTA critics is that the cheap generic ARVs, which AIDS patients need to prolong their lives, will not be available after the Thai-U.S. agreement is signed.

’’Any attempt to stop the current production of generic ARVs will mean death for people with AIDS,’’ said Nimit Tienudom, director of AIDS Access Foundation, a Bangkok-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) lobbying for better treatment for people with HIV/AIDS.

’’We are worried about the terms that may be discussed during FTA talks,’’ he told IPS. ’’The prices of brand-name drugs are too expensive for the people.’’

Currently, the monthly cost of the ’’cocktail’’ of ARVs produced by the state pharmaceutical agency comes to 1,200 baht (30 U.S. dollars), as against the brand-name drugs produced by the pharmaceutical giants, costing anywhere between 10,000 baht (250 U.S. dollars) to 30,000 baht (750 dollars).

It is this generic anti-AIDS drug that is supplied to 50,000 Thais with HIV of the nearly 200,000 with the killer disease who need it. ’’And even this drug has to be changed to something more potent after five years. That new drug needs to be a generic one also,’’ argues Nimit.

This South-east Asian country has close to 670,000 people with HIV out of a population of 64 million. Over 300,000 people have died from AIDS-related causes since the pandemic was first detected here in the 1980s.

What is more, the generic ARVs produced by Thailand have assured longer life for people with HIV in other poverty-stricken countries of the region, like Cambodia, Laos and Burma.

In May, the U.S. government assured Thailand that its citizens with HIV/AIDS need not fear generic anti-AIDS drugs being affected by the FTA under negotiation.

The deal being worked out would not come in the way of Thailand producing generic ARVs, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zellick said during a visit to Bangkok.

’’In all our free trade agreements, we made very clear that the agreement to which the United States joined — and in fact I helped put together — dealing with access to medicines, dealing with HIV/AIDS, would not be affected at all by any aspect of this agreement,’’ Zellick was quoted as having told the local media.

But Thai academics are sceptical, and point to the U.S. government’s trade agreements with Singapore and Chile as indicators of Washington’s thinking about generic drugs.

’’The text of the U.S. FTA with Singapore and Chile reveals a deal seeking to extend the life of a patented drug and retain data exclusivity,’’ Jiraporn Limpananont of the social pharmacy research unit at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University told IPS.

That would prevent Thailand from producing the much-needed generic drugs, she added. ’’So how do we solve our health problems even though we have the capacity to produce generic drugs?’’

By extending the life of patents under the FTA, Jiraporn refers to the U.S. government’s push to enforce a 25-year period for drug patents as part of the trade deal, as opposed to the 20-year period under the prevailing rules of world trade.

The case that FTA critics like Jiraporn are making has received a timely shot in the arm from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Last week, the Geneva-based U.N. health agency announced that generic drugs are vital for combating AIDS.

Hans Hogerzeil, the WHO’s director of medicines policy and standards, used an international pharmaceuticals conference to appeal to the United States to permit more generic drugs in its AIDS treatment initiatives.

For Witoon, of FTA Watch, they are words that Thai trade negotiators should also heed. ’’Generic drugs must be protected.’’

source: IPS