WHO DG regrets her reported remarks on Thai compulsory licenses

Original Publication Date: 
14 February, 2007

The Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr. Margaret Chan, has sent a letter to Thailand's Health Minister expressing regret for the embarrassment caused to his government by remarks she was reported to have made in Bangkok that were critical of the compulsory licenses granted by the government for three medicines.

The letter follows the deep offence that Dr. Chan's comments had caused the government and particularly the Minister of Public Health, Dr. Mongkol Na Songkhla, who was reported to have cancelled a dinner meeting with the Director-General.

Dr. Chan's reported comments, highlighted by a Bangkok Post article of 2 February entitled "WHO raps compulsory licensing plan", had also caused outrage among international health NGOs and grassroots health movements worldwide, especially groups representing people living with HIV-AIDS. More than 400 groups and individuals have sent her a protest letter asking her to change her views.

In her letter, Dr. Chan assures the Health Minister that its issuance of compulsory licenses is "entirely the prerogative of the government, and fully in line with the TRIPS agreement", that the WHO "unequivocally supports the use by developing countries of the flexibilities within the TRIPS agreement", including the use of compulsory licensing, and that "there is no requirement for countries to negotiate with patent holders before issuing a compulsory licence."

The Director General however repeats the main theme of her speeches when she was in Bangkok recently, that the multinational drug companies are "part of the solution" and that it would be "pragmatic" for the government have prior negotiations with them.

In her speech on 1 February at a health conference in Bangkok, Dr Chan spoke on the problem of neglected diseases, praised the role of multinational drug industry and stressed that the solution was to rely on drug donations or discounts from the companies.

On the same day, during a visit to the National Health Security Office, Dr Chan reportedly cautioned Thailand over its move to adopt compulsory licensing for producing generic versions of drugs for heart disease and AIDS.

''I'd like to underline that we have to find a right balance for compulsory licensing. We can't be naive about this. There is no perfect solution for accessing drugs in both quality and quantity,'' the Bangkok Post quoted her as saying.

The report continued: "Dr Chan said she truly felt that the pharmaceutical industry was part of the solution to better drug access and that the government should open negotiations with drug firms over the issue."

The Thai government has taken the position that it need not negotiate with the patent holder before issuing a compulsory license if this is for non-commercial public use, which was the case for its three licenses. This position was confirmed as correct (i. e. not in violation of the WTO's TRIPS agreement) by international legal and health experts, including Professor Carlos Correa of Argentina, at a Bangkok press conference on 2 February.

Dr. Chan's letter to Dr. Mongkol now states the WHO's view that there is "no requirement for countries to negotiate with patent holders before issuing a compulsory licence."

In late January, the Health Ministry announced the compulsory licensing of two drugs