A controversial generic drugs program for cancer medicines, that was to be reviewed earlier for possible cancelation,is to be retained, said Thailand's health minister on Tuesday.
Public Health Minister Chiya Sasomsub's policy U-turn came as consumer and health activists collected more than 20,000 signatures, a minimum requirement for Thais to impeach a minister.
"We will go ahead with compulsory licences because we believe that all Thai patients must have access to quality and affordable drugs," Chiya said in a statement.
Under the generic drug scheme, Thailand's former military government issued so-called compulsory licences, which temporarily suspend patent protections for pricey medicines and allow production of cheaper and copycat versions.
The army-backed government overrode patents for popular heart drug Plavix and two key AIDS medicines -- Kaletra and Efavirenz -- and issued compulsory licences on three cancer drugs in January shortly before it left office.
Apart from the three cancer drugs -- Docetaxel, Letrozole and Tarceva -- the military government also struck a last-minute deal with drug giant Novartis, which agreed to give its leukaemia medicine Glivec to Thai patients for free.
But Chiya, who took office in early February, hinted the new government might cancel compulsory licences for the cancer drugs, prompting activists to campaign for his impeachment.
The health minister now said he supported compulsory licences for the cancer drugs, adding the move could help the government save three billion baht (95 million dollars).
The generic drug program has angered Western drug giants, which called it an infringement on their intellectual property rights.
But activists have hailed it, saying it was a "beacon" for other developing nations seeking cheaper medicines for the poor.
Saree Aongsomwang, a consumer activist who campaigned for the generic drug scheme, welcomed Chiya's decision and urged him to expand it to include more drugs.
"We are happy with the decision. We want him to expand the program to include drugs for mental patients," she said.
Among the cancer drugs, Docetaxel treats lung cancer and Letrozole is used for breast cancer. Tarceva is used for lung, pancreatic and ovarian cancer.