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HEALTH: Thais Make Cheap Generic Drug Against Bird Flu

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Aug 4 2006 (IPS) - Having succeeded in producing cheap generic drugs to help people with HIV/AIDS enjoy longer lives, Thailand is now ready with generics capable of helping its citizens fight the onslaught of another deadly virus – bird flu.

The announcement by Thai scientists that they now have a generic version of Tamiflu, the only known anti-viral drug capable of stopping an epidemic of avian influenza, could not have been better timed. It offers hope for cheaper treatment just as the country is grappling with a virulent outbreak of the H5N1 strain of the virus in its poultry population, after a seven-month lull.

”It will not be for commercial purposes. This is for our security, to have the tablets available,” Dr. Sirirerk Songsivilai, deputy director of the national science and technology development agency, told IPS. ”We have the capacity to produce it locally and we want to increase our stockpile.”

”This success will help Thailand in (the event) of a bird flu outbreak if Tamiflu is in short supply,” Dr. Mongkol Jiwasantikarn, director of the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation (GPO), was quoted as having told ‘The Nation’ newspaper on Friday.

The GPO, a state agency, has been at the vanguard of producing cheap generic drugs for Thai patients. In 2002, it added to its impressive record by offering a generic version of anti-AIDS drugs that cost 30 US dollars for a course of medicines per month. At the time, a monthly dosage of anti-AIDS drugs produced by the pharmaceutical giants in the industrialised world and sold here amounted to 450 dollars.

On Thursday, when this latest Thai success was announced at a press conference, the GPO also confirmed how cheaper the local drug would be. The generic drug, to be made available through the public hospitals, will cost 70 baht (1.85 dollar) per capsule, almost half the price of the brand-name version of Tamiflu, which costs 120 baht (3.15 dollars) per capsule.

The period that the two Thai scientists took to produce this generic anti-viral drug – six months – saw concerns being expressed in many quarters about the world having an inadequate supply of the patented version of Tamiflu, produced by the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche. That followed pressure on Roche to give up its right to hold the Tamiflu patent. The Swiss manufacturer’s critics, including a ranking member of the U.S. Senate, saw such attempts to defend the right of the Tamiflu patent in the wake of a possible pandemic triggered by bird flu as a blatant display of a multinational placing profits over the lives of people.

For developing countries in South-east Asia, the epicenter of the deadly virus, such concern about the short supply of Tamiflu was further heightened when they were sidelined by the richer countries in the West to buy out the limited supply of the brand-name anti-viral that Roche had on offer.

Currently, Thailand has stockpiled one million doses of the anti-viral drug; both the original version and a generic version made from ingredients imported from India. The GPO hopes to add another one million capsules of its own version of Tamiflu during its initial production run.

”It is perfectly okay for countries to produce generic drugs. It means that the drugs are available to deal with the first phase of an emergency,” Harsaran Pandey, spokesperson of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) South and East Asia office, said during a telephone interview from New Delhi. ”But no country – even one as rich as the U.S.- is ever going to have stockpiles for all its citizens.”

Public health authorities have raised the alarm that bird flu, if not stopped at the source through a range of preventive measures, including proper medical care for patients, could trigger a global pandemic. Such an eventuality, of a new flu virus being passed between humans, could kill millions.

The global humanitarian agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is also throwing its weight behind the GPO’s latest contribution to generic drugs. ”If a country has the capacity to produce generic drugs for an illness that affects a significant number of its people, then it should go ahead. They have to be good drugs, though,” Paul Cawthorne, the Thai country coordinator of the Belgium branch of MSF, told IPS.

”Roche cannot use the patent protection argument here because it is not in a position to meet the current demand,” he added. ”If they try to defend their patent, they would lose the battle in the public sphere.”

But set against the hope that the GPO is offering to stave off chances of a pandemic comes reports from an increasing number of provinces in northern and central Thailand about the rapid spread of bird flu since July. By Friday, animal health experts confirmed that poultry in fifteen provinces had been hit by the H5N1 strain of the virus.

The public health ministry has put 164 patients on a suspected bird flu list. It follows the death of a 17-year-old boy last month, the 15th human fatality due to bird flu since the beginning of 2004.

Thailand is one of ten countries where people have died from close contact with contaminated poultry. The current death toll stands at 134 out of 232 reported cases since the winter of 2003, according to the WHO. The worst hit countries, in human terms, are Vietnam and Indonesia, where 42 people have died due to avian flu in each place.

 
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