Thailand will not override a patent on leukaemia drug Glivec after its maker, Swiss giant Novartis, agreed to give the medicine to most patients for free, an official said Friday.
The move was a last-minute victory for the outgoing military-backed government, which was at loggerheads with Western pharmaceutical firms over so-called compulsory licenses, which temporarily suspend patent protections.
The government already overrode patents for popular heart drug Plavix and two key AIDS medicines -- Kaletra and Efavirenz -- and has threatened to expand its generic programmes to include cancer drugs, including Glivec.
But Novartis has agreed to give Glivec to Thai patients for free, said Suchart Chongtrasert, a senior official at the Food and Drug Administration and a member of Thailand's generic drug negotiation team.
"The company agreed to give the medicine to Thai patients for free. We are satisfied with the outcome. With the company's proposal, there is no need to do CL," Suchart said, referring to compulsory licenses.
Thai cancer patients with an annual household income of less than 1.7 million baht (51,000 dollars) are eligible to receive free Glivec, he said.
Currently, Glivec, which is also known as Imatinib, costs 130,000 baht (4,000 dollars) per patient per month, the ministry said.
As Thailand's newly-elected Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is set to form his cabinet early next week, Suchart said he hoped the new government would continue to press ahead with generic drug programmes.
"I hope the new government will work hard on CL. The issue is very important for Thais," Suchart said.
Activists have hailed Thailand's drive for copycat drugs as a "beacon" for other developing nations seeking to provide treatments to the poor.
But pharmaceutical giants have derided it as an infringement on their intellectual property rights, warning that lost profits would make it harder to finance research for medical innovations.
A Bangkok office for Novartis could not be reached for comment.