Thailand's new health minister said Friday he would keep the country's controversial generic drugs programme but stopped short of saying whether the new government would expand the scheme.
"My position is that I am not going to cancel CL," Public Health Minister Chiya Sasomsub said, referring to so-called compulsory licenses, which temporarily suspend patent protections and allow production of copycat drugs.
The generic drug programme was one of the most contentious policies of Thailand's just-departed military regime, angering Western pharmaceutical giants as it allows governments to override patent protections.
The army-backed government already overrode patents for popular heart drug Plavix and two key AIDS medicines -- Kaletra and Efavirenz -- and was planning to expand the programme to include cancer drugs.
Apart from the three drugs, the previous government struck a last-minute deal with Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, which agreed to give its leukaemia medicine Glivec to most Thai patients for free.
While drug makers have derided the generic drug scheme as an infringement on their intellectual property rights, activists have hailed it as a "beacon" for other developing nations seeking to provide treatments to the poor.
But soon after taking office on Wednesday, Chiya said he would review the scheme, alarming local activists.
On Friday, Chiya met with about 50 Thai health and consumer activists, who urged the new minister to press ahead with the copycat drug programme.
Following the meeting, Chiya said he would keep the scheme for now but stopped short of saying whether the new government would expand it to include more drugs.