(NaturalNews) Health Minister Chaiya Sasomsap said that the government of Thailand will override the patents on three cancer drugs, after pressure from health activists and doctors calling on him to resign. Over the course of five years, the decision is expected to save the government of Thailand, and cost the pharmaceutical companies, more than 3 billion baht ($100 million).
It is not the first time that Thailand has issued compulsory licenses to override the patents on expensive drugs. In 2006, former Health Minister Mongkol na Songkhla overrode the patent on the HIV/AIDS medication Efavirenz, manufactured by Merck.
Mongkol said that a poor nation such as Thailand could not afford to pay patented drug prices for the 63 million people on its national health plan - 80 percent of the country's population. Soon after, he issued compulsory licenses for an Abbot Laboratories AIDS drug and a Sanofi-Aventis heart medicine.
Mongkol also announced patent overrides on three cancer drugs: Letrozole, a Novartis drug for breast cancer; Docetaxel, a Sanofi-Aventis drug for breast and lung cancer; and Erlotinib, a Roche drug for lung, ovarian and pancreatic cancer. But when Chaiya took over as health minister in February 2008, the three affected drug companies launched a lobbying effort to reverse Mongkol's decision.
Chaiya, a businessman with no history in medicine, announced that he would review the decision, calling it "politically correct ... but not legally correct." He also fired the Health Ministry's top negotiator responsible for securing lower prices for foreign drug companies. Outraged doctors and health activists immediately launched a campaign to remove Chaiya from office.
On March 10, Chaiya announced that Mongkol's initial decision would be upheld.
"The findings have convinced me to go ahead with the compulsory licenses, since the ministry's policy is to give patients good access to quality drugs at cheap prices," he said.
In February, drug company Novartis averted a compulsory license on its leukemia drug Glivec by agreeing to provide it to hundreds of Thai patients for free.