By Darren Schuettler
BANGKOK, March 14 (Reuters) - U.S. drugs giant Abbott Laboratories (ABT.N) said it would stop launching new medicines in Thailand in protest at the army-backed government’s move to override international drug patents.
The decision will not affect Abbott drugs already on sale in Thailand, which declared a "compulsory licence" in January allowing it to make or buy generic versions of Abbott’s Kaletra to treat HIV/AIDS.
"Thailand has chosen to break patents on numerous medicines, ignoring the patent system. As such, we’ve elected not to introduce new medicines there," Abbott spokeswoman Jennifer Smoter told Reuters.
There was no immediate reaction from the Health Ministry, which argues it needs cheaper, copycat drugs to ensure wider access for Thailand’s 63 million people, including 580,000 living with HIV/AIDS.
About 30 AIDS activists and patients protested outside Abbott’s office in Bangkok, calling for a boycott of the company’s products.
Paul Cawthorne of Medicins Sans Frontieres called Abbott’s decision an "immoral act". Other critics accused Abbott of depriving Thailand’s poor of lifesaving medicines, particularly a new formulation of Kaletra.
"Abbott has the hubris to blacklist a courageous country like Thailand simply trying to do the right thing for its people. Astounding," Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said in a statement.
The seven withdrawn drugs include the new version of Kaletra, an antibiotic, a painkiller and medicines to fight blood clots, arthritis, kidney disease and high blood pressure.
Abbott is believed to be the first pharmaceutical maker to withhold new drugs from Thailand since the government shocked drug makers late last year with its first compulsory licence, for Efavirenz, an HIV-AIDS treatment made by Merck & Co (MRK.N).
Thailand has also issued one for Plavix, a heart disease medicine made by Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY.N) and Sanofi-Aventis, (SASY.PA), the first time a developing nation as done so for such a treatment.
Although legal under world trade rules, the licences, which allow governments to make or buy generic versions of medicines needed for public health measures, stunned drug makers who received no prior warning.
Malaysia and Indonesia were the first in Southeast Asia to issue such licences for AIDS drugs three years ago, but Thailand has gone farther in challenging Big Pharma by targeting other drugs.
Health Minister Mongkol na Songkhla told Reuters last month he was studying whether to issue compulsory licences for other "essential medicines" to fight cancer, heart disease and other leading causes of death in Thailand.