Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Firms Accused of AIDS Profiteering

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Medical activists are urging Thailand to take a stand against drug multinationals by licensing the local manufacture of a crucial AIDS drug that could let hundreds of thousands live longer if they could afford it.

They say Bangkok should be emboldened to take the unprecedented step over the drug didanosine, or ddI, after U.S. President Bill Clinton said Washington would alter trade policy to support greater worldwide access to life-saving medicines.

However, the activists believe Thailand, like other developing countries struggling with the AIDS epidemic, will be unwilling to take the radical step of imposing "compulsory licensing" allowed under world trade rules, fearing retaliation.

They say Washington has put pressure on Thailand in the past by threatening higher tariffs on Thai imports.

"The U.S. government is constantly bullying countries that attempt to pass laws to make medicines more affordable," James Love, director of the U.S. Consumer Project on Technology, said in a statement in response to Clinton's Dec. 1 announcement.

"If Clinton is to be taken seriously, we'll have to see something concrete. For example, the U.S. could signal to Thailand it can proceed with compulsory licenses for ddI. ? That was invented by the U.S. government but sold at high prices by Bristol-Myers Squibb."

The U.S. drug giant, dedicated according to its motto, to "Extending and Enhancing Human Life," boasts on its web site of subsidizing drug therapy in clinical trials in Thailand "because of the large potential market of more than 1 million people infected with AIDS".

It sells ddI in Thailand under the name Videx at about 49 baht ($1.25) a capsule, far beyond the means of most Thais infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which causes AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Current pricing means people in a country where the minimum monthly wage is just 5,400 baht ($138) must pay up to 8,000 baht ($205) a month for a two-drug anti-retroviral cocktail.

The bulk of the cost is for ddI, since Thailand's Government Pharmaceutical Organization began producing the other drug f AZT, or zidovudine f in 1995 at about a quarter of the price of the imported version.

Krisana Kraisintu, head of research and development at the GPO, says she could produce ddI for 25 baht a capsule if local production were permitted.

"More HIV-infected people could have access to it if we were to manufacture it," she said. "Now only 5 percent of the HIV-infected people can have access to the drug. If I can cut the price to half, maybe up to 10 percent can have access."

Officials at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Thailand were unavailable for comment, but Thai media reports and activists say the firm aims to head off compulsory licensing by offering ddI in Thailand at a steep discount.

Nobel Peace Prize-winning nongovernmental organization M?decins sans Fronti?res, which is spearheading a global campaign to ensure ddI and other essential drugs reach those who need them, says this is not an answer and a stand should be made.

Compulsory licensing would allow the local production of cheap, generic versions of the drug on payment of a royalty.

Activists say drug companies are not only worried about a drop in profits in the country concerned but that if one developing country were to take the step, others would follow.

MSF says the argument drug firms make f that the big profits they pile up are needed for research f is especially spurious in ddI's case since it was developed with U.S. taxpayers' money. It says the best solution would be for the firms to grant voluntary licenses for production of key drugs in developing countries.

"For Bristol-Myers Squibb, something important is at stake: the first use of a compulsory license in a developing country," said Tido Von Schoen-Angerer, of MSF's Bangkok office.

"They will accept major price reductions if they can avoid the use of a compulsory license in Thailand."