General News - Monday December 17, 2007
Thailand 'can afford' higher drug prices
Country rich enough to meet share of R&D
Thailand is not a poor country and can afford to pay a little more for patented medicine, although not as much as rich countries, according to Jeffrey Sachs, special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general. Mr Sachs, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University, said since Thailand is a middle-income level country with a gross national product of US$3,000 a year it should be able to bear higher research and development costs of brand-name pharmaceutical companies, not just the production costs.
''It does seem to me that the right answer is to pay a little bit more than the poor countries. But not anything like what the rich country market would charge.
''Some kind of middle level that reflects the middle level of income,'' he said.
''Don't put Thailand in exactly the same position as Ghana,'' he said.
The former director of the UN Millennium Project said he was sympathetic towards patent protection. The system actually had a lot of merit because it created an incentive for drug development. The industry requires hundreds of millions of dollars to develop new drugs and it needs a return from patent protection.
However, there was nothing wrong with the use of compulsory licensing of essential medicines.
The government last January issued compulsory licensing under the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects on Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) to bypass patents on the anti-Aids and heart drugs Efavirenz, Kaletra and Plavix.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon lauded the country's move on compulsory licensing during his visit last week as progressive. He said Thailand had also made commendable efforts in containing the spread of HIV/Aids.
Robert Weissman, the director of Essential Action, a Washington DC-based organisation that promotes access to medicines, argued that production costs of new drugs were relatively low and that the drug industry does not spend too much of its revenue on research and development these days. Public research institutions, on the other hand, play a key role in developing important life-saving drugs, he said.
According to Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry spends only 17.5% of its revenue on research. In addition, most of the new products introduced to the market are driven by marketing priorities rather than health needs.
''The patent system fails to deliver drugs for neglected diseases, for example malaria and tuberculosis. It is not acceptable to maintain a research and development system funded by high prices rather than prioritising the health needs of the world's population,'' he said.
Mr Weissman said middle-income countries should make a fair contribution to research. Discussions are underway at the World Health Organisation to explore ways to advance both innovation and increase access.
''The world must find ways to support research and development that does not result in the rationing of life-saving medicines in developing countries, and denial of life-saving treatment to people simply because they are poor,'' he said.
Siriwat Tiptaradol, secretary-general of the Food and Drug Administration, said Thailand would not depend entirely on compulsory licensing to override drug patents and cut drug prices forever.
''It is essential to develop a research and development system as well as a local generic drug industry to widen access to life-saving medicines for the vast majority of Thais. The government is also seeking technology transfer from generic drug-makers in India and China to develop essential cancer and heart drugs,'' he said.
Public Health Minister Mongkol Na Songkhla was recently in India to meet the country's generic drug producers. Some agreed with the idea of technology transfer.
Apart from Aids and heart drugs, three cancer drugs from India have also been forwarded for registration with the FDA, after the government said it wanted to widen access to four patented drugs for the treatment of leukaemia, breast and lung cancers.
Roche holds the patent for lung cancer drug Erlotinib, whereas Sanofi Aventis owns the patent for Docetaxel, widely used for treating lung and breast cancers. Novartis owns the patents for the leukaemia drug Imatinib and the breast cancer drug Letrozole.
Dr Siriwat said his price-negotiating panel will hold a final round of discussions with the patent owners today, before deciding whether the government will issue compulsory licences for the drugs.