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Drugs into bodies, money into pockets

This Magazine Staff

When Big Pharma doesn’t get its way, it takes its toys and goes home. When the “toys” in question are life-saving medications, the results can be grim. People with HIV in Thailand are finding this out first hand.
Most medications are protected by 20-year patents that allow a drugmaker the exclusive right to produce them and profit from them— but exceptions can be made for urgent medical situations in poor countries. A country can issue a “compulsory license” to allow for the generic manufacture of drugs its people urgently need but cannot afford.
That’s what Thailand has done in the case of Kaletra, one of the new generation of HIV meds. Prior to that, the government in the developing nation had been trying without success to get Abbott Laboratories to lower its hefty annual $2,200-per-patient pricetag.
The Thai government’s move was assailed by the Wall Street Journal, who called it a “seizure of foreign drug patents.” Abbott responded by pulling its wares off Thai shelves. They have rescinded a request to register a new heat-resistant version of Kaletra in Thailand, along with several other Abbott products. This effectively prevents the government from allowing anyone to make a generic copy of the drug, because they will have no legal access to the original in order to test and assure they are equivalent.

Activists argue that this demonstrates putting profits over people’s lives. The heat-resistant drug formulation was desperately needed in Thailand because there is no guarantee of refrigeration at all points in the drug’s supply chain.
American law professor Brook K Baker, member of the advocacy group Health GAP, was particularly scathing. In a release, he described the withholding the registration for life-saving medicines “a new variant of pharmaceutical apartheid.”
Baker assailed the notion the drug companies need to protect their patents because of R&D costs. He described Abbott as “a company which has been subsidized through NIH and university research for most of its discoveries, which gets huge taxes breaks for its research and development expenditures, and which earns monopoly profits on all its sales in rich country markets that collectively comprise 90% of global pharmaceutical sales.”
The battling over profits in poor countries certainly appears greedy. Médecins sans Frontières also criticized the drug company, noting that in Thailand, newer “second-line” HIV drugs like Kaletra (which many patients need to turn to when older medicines no longer work for them), can cost up to 22 times more than first-line drugs, specifically because of patent protection.
In Thailand, where AIDS has become a leading cause of death, that’s money most people just don’t have.

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