Thailand could get a cancer medicine from Norvatis for free if it slows its drive for generic versions of patented drugs, the country's health minister said Wednesday.
Thailand is at the forefront of an international battle with pharmaceutical companies over so-called compulsory licenses, which temporarily suspend patent protections.
The government has already issued compulsory licenses to get copycat versions of a heart drug and two key AIDS medicines. In September, it announced that it would also seek generic versions of four cancer drugs.
During talks with Novartis over its cancer-fighting Imatinib, Health Minister Mongkol Na Songkhla said the company had offered to provide the drug for free if Thailand halts its drive to expand its generic drug programme.
If a deal were reached, the government could provide unlimited amounts of the drug through its universal health care scheme, he said.
Imatinib currently costs as much as 100,000 baht (2,950 dollars) per patient per month.
"Novartis proposed to us to give free Imatinib without condition and limit in amount and time. We are in the final process of discussion," Mongkol told a seminar on compulsory licensing (CL) in Bangkok.
He said talks with two other drugmakers on cheaper prices for cancer drugs were also making progress.
"If this is successful, there will be no need for the government to implement more CL" on other drugs, he added.
Thailand has so far imposed compulsory licenses for the blockbuster heart drug Plavix and the AIDS medicines Kaletra and Efavirenz.
It has already begun importing cheaper versions from India, a major source of generic drugs.
Mongkol refused to rule out the possibility that the country would seek generic versions of other drugs in extraordinary circumstances.
"I won't say that we will do it again or not. We will do more CL only (on an) exceptional basis," he told reporters.
He also said that the government was considering legal action against Abbott, which withdrew an advanced version of Kaletra from the Thai market after the compulsory license was issued.
Thailand has a law that bars pharmaceutical companies from limiting access to their drugs if the medicine is available in other countries.
"The commerce ministry has been under negotiations with Abbott and considering a chance for legal action against the company," he said.