Thai chief drug price negotiator removed from post

BANGKOK Tue Feb 26, 2008 7:14am EST

BANGKOK Feb 26 (Reuters) - Thailand's chief negotiator with major drug firms that are battling Bangkok's override of their international patents has been removed from his post, Health Minister Chaiya Sasomsap said on Tuesday.

Siriwat Thiptharadon, head of the Food and Drug Administration and an architect of the previous government's compulsory licence (CL) policy, was moved to an inactive post.

"It's not about the CL issue, it's about appropriateness," Chaiya told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting, a remark he did not explain.

Chatree Banchuen, a senior Health Ministry official, was appointed head of the FDA and lead negotiator on drug prices.

Starting in late 2006, former Health Minister Mongkol na Songkhla overrode patents on two HIV-AIDS drugs, a heart medicine and four cancer drugs, arguing that they were too expensive for a national health plan covering about 80 percent of Thailand's 63 million people.

Chaiya, a member of the new government which took power last month, has questioned the legality of the moves on the cancer drugs and said the government could afford their $24-$27 million annual cost.

Drug firms and their allies have accused Bangkok of stealing intellectual property. The United States put Thailand on its "priority watch list", citing weaker respect for patents.

Washington has not threatened trade sanctions, but Chaiya has said Thai Commerce Ministry officials fear a further downgrade could put Thailand at risk of American trade retaliation.

Mongkol insisted he followed Thai laws and World Trade Organisation rules, which allow countries to override a drug patent if it is deemed critical to public health as long as the medicines are meant for domestic use. (Reporting by Bangkok bureau; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

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