A bottle of Kaletra
A bottle of Kaletra - 
Listen To The Story

KAI RYSSDAL: The United Nations says there are more than half a million people in Thailand living with HIV. To treat them, the Thai government's broken patents on a number of medicines made by major pharmaceutical companies, including Abbott Labs. Abbott Labs makes a tablet caled Kaletra. As a result, Abbott announced today, it won't sell any new drugs in Thailand. Sarah Gardner has more.

SARAH GARDNER: Abbott Labs declined to be interviewed today but released a terse statement, accusing Thailand of "breaking patents on numerous medicines." But health activists say it's not that simple.

BUDDHIMA LOKUGE: We believe the most important thing is to ensure that there's access to the essential medicines.

Dr. Buddhima Lokuge is with Doctors Without Borders. He and other health activists say Thailand's overriding of Abbott's patent is legal. Under World Trade Organization rules, governments can bypass drug patent laws and opt for cheaper generic versions in the case of national emergency. Thailand claims it has one. The country has more than a half million HIV/AIDS patients and health officials say Kaletra's $347-a-month price tag is unaffordable. Anti-patent activist James Love:

JAMES LOVE: If you live in a developing country, what these drug companies are doing is they're selling things so only the people in the top income brackets can afford them, that's the profit-maximizing price.

Abbott had been negotiating with Thai officials on a lower price for Kaletra but no agreement was reached. Christopher-Paul Milne, at the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, says he believes Abbott was probably more worried by Thailand's decision to declare a crisis over another more commonly used drug, Plavix, a blood thinner for heart patients.

CHRISTOPHER-PAUL MILNE: Whether it meets the conditions of being an emergency situation, certainly Plavix is not a drug where you can probably make a good argument for that.

Drugmakers have argued if their patents can be broken easily, they'll have no incentive to develop new drugs in the future.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

Follow Sarah Gardner at @RadioGardner