Asian churches take up generic drugs campaign

By Ecumenical News International
20 May 2007

Asian Christian leaders have given their support to moves by Thailand to enforce the compulsory licensing of patented AIDS drugs in order to lower their cost by allowing the production or purchase of generic versions - writes Francis Wong.

"It is a basic human right to health," Prawate Khid-arn, general secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), told Ecumenical News International in a telephone interview. "Poor countries can't afford the expensive AIDS drugs."

In recent weeks, Thailand's public health ministry has sought international support for the country's plan to acquire less expensive generic versions of AIDS drugs through compulsory licensing. However, the US administration as well as some pharmaceutical companies have expressed serious doubts about the proposal.

"Among the 65 million total population, there are 800,000 to 1,000,000 people living with HIV and AIDS here; we should emphasise a human rights perspective in dealing with the issue," said CCA general secretary Prawate.

At the end of April 2007, the United States Trade Representative's office said it was placing Thailand on its "priority watch list" because of a deterioration in the protection of intellectual property rights in the southeast Asian country.

The office did not mention any medicines by name but analysts said the move appeared to be connected to the decision by the Thai government to issue compulsory licenses for certain AIDS drugs.

In a letter sent earlier this month urging Christian groups to support the Thai government's measures, the CCA was strongly critical of the US decision. "Their action serves commercial interest only, and disregards the right to basic health care and right to life," stated the CCA, whose headquarters are at Chiang Mai in Thailand.

Elijah Fung, the manager of the HIV education centre of the Anglican St John's cathedral in Hong Kong, said there needed to be a balance between intellectual protection and the basic right to health.

"In view of the fact that many people in developing countries can't afford the expensive AIDS drugs, authorities should consider case-by-case helping people to have access to cheap generic drugs, out of humanitarian reasons," Fung told Ecumenical News International.

The World Trade Organization permits compulsory licensing for national emergency and justified non-profit cases. Patent holders may then receive certain royalties after a patented item has been compulsory licensed.

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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