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Monday, 12 February, 2001, 15:14 GMT
Thais battle firms over Aids drugs
A nurse with an HIV-positive baby at a Thai hospital
Tens of thousands of Thai babies have been infected with HIV
By Simon Ingram in Bangkok

Thailand is one country at the forefront of the battle between developing countries and the multinational pharmaceutical companies over the need for affordable medicines.

The country has an urgent need to address the issue - an estimated one million people are infected with HIV, the virus that causes Aids.

The Thai Government has campaigned to produce its own much cheaper generic drugs for Aids patients.

But their campaign has produced only partial results.

Unaffordable prices

Thailand's dealings with the leading multinational drug producers offer an intriguing insight into the manner in which these companies respond to the pressure of public opinion.

Aids drugs
Some of the newer Aids drugs are prohibitively expensive
A media and public outcry in late 1999 highlighted the fact that the key retroviral drugs needed to treat Thailand's HIV/Aids patients were being sold at prices way beyond what would be considered affordable.

Soon afterwards, in what appeared to be a significant concession, the British-based firm, GlaxoSmithKlein, agreed to supply the raw ingredients needed to make the drugs to Thailand's own state-run pharmaceutical organisation.

Another leading manufacturer, the German firm Boehringer, entered licensing negotiations with the health ministry over ways of reducing the cost of its products.

Tokenism

But critics say the conciliatory approach presented by the multinationals was not all it seemed, not least because only 2,000 patients stood to benefit.

Aids prevention messages
An economic crisis in Thailand has resulted in severe cuts on the Aids budget
In addition, the cheaper drugs would only be available at government hospitals, not at private clinics or pharmacies.

According to Paul Cawthorne of the Belgian branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres, the multinationals' strategy smacks of tokenism.

He says the companies are using a variety of tactics to calm the situation while still doing everything possible to prevent Thai manufacturers from producing the drugs - something which would dramatically reduce the price of the medicines concerned.

Dr Cawthorne says that under pressure from the United States Government, Thailand now has patency laws that are even stricter than required by the World Trade Organisation.

Pressure has worked, he says, because of Thailand's new to protect its trade relations with the US and Europe.

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See also:

21 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Thais shut down online pharmacies
01 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Chinks in Thailand's Aids armour
30 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Asia's burgeoning Aids epidemic
18 Sep 99 | Africa
Aids drug trade dispute ends
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