The army-appointed Thai government has invoked a rule under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to break patents and supply generic versions of drugs to treat heart disease.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 74 per cent of AIDS medicines are still under monopoly and 30 per cent of the world's population still do not have regular access to essential medicines.
Now, Bangkok has challenged the monopoly and profitable earnings by drug giants and issued compulsory licences for two medications, Abbott's Kaletra (lopinavir/ritonavir), an HIV/AIDS drug, and Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sanofi-Aventis' Plavix (clopidogrel), an anti-clotting agent.
Although governments have previously used compulsory licences to treat epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, the Thai government has now broken a patent for heart disease, seen as a precedent setting challenge to drug giants worldwide. The legality of this move depends on the interpretation of the WTO's rules.
The Thai government explains the move was made in the interest of public health but pressure to stop this 'humanitarian gesture' is expected to come from drug companies and Western governments.
Poor countries are allowed to buy cheap copies of desperately needed drugs under the Doha declaration adopted by the WTO in 2001. But the US is accused of trying to prevent countries, which have manufacturing capacity, such as Thailand and India, making and selling cheap generic versions so as to preserve the monopolies of the drug giants.
Specific points written into the declaration say that developing countries must be able to use public health safeguards written into the WTO's intellectual property rules (TRIPS) in order to access cheaper generic versions of patented medicines.