By and large the World Trade Organisation’s intellectual property rules protect the multinationals, including Big Pharma, but they also contain provisions for developing and middle-income countries to over-ride patents on costly medicines in times of emergency and manufacture them themselves, or import cheaper generic versions from elsewhere.
Not a lot of people know that because not a lot of countries have had the courage to use the provisions. But now Thailand has issued a compulsory licence for Merck’s anti-Aids drug Efavirenz, (www.doctorswithoutborders.org/pr/2006/11-29-2006_2.cfm) meaning a cut in its price of about 50 per cent.
Nathan Ford of the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres called the move “an extremely brave politically – but totally legal - step”. MSF cites UNAIDS reports that Thailand is the only South East Asian country to have over half the number of people who need it on Aids treatment but its treatment programme is facing rising costs.
With a military-installed government that courage tends to derive from owning tanks, but that’s another story.