Students Protest Drug Policy

A group of Harvard students travelled to the Abbott Laboratories facility in Worcester, Mass., yesterday afternoon to protest the pharmaceutical company’s recent decision not to allow Thailand’s government to produce generic versions of its Kaletra AIDS drug.

The protest, organized by the Harvard chapter of the National Student AIDS Coalition, was timed to coincide with the Illinois-based pharmaceutical company’s shareholder meeting today.

In January, Thailand issued a “compulsory license” that would have allowed companies to produce generic versions of Kaletra and Aluvia, another AIDS drug, an action that was legal under World Trade Organization regulations and undertaken to make drugs more accessible to the population. Five hundred thousand people in Thailand are living with HIV, according to a United Nations report.

Yesterday’s protesters demanded that Abbott Laboratories immediately re-register Kaletra, Aluvia, and six other medications it pulled from the Thailand market, and grant other developing nations the rights to produce generic versions of its medications at affordable prices.

“We had to do something. Abbott is counting on activists not being strong, that civil society is not going to make an outry,” said Matthew F. Basilico ’08, the press liaison for the protest. “Making generic versions of these drugs available will save many more lives, and take away a slight margin or profits. What [Abbott is] doing is childish, petty, and awful.”

Representatives for Abbott could not be reached for comment. But a spokesman for the company told the AP last month that the decision not to allow production of generic drugs was made because Thailand was ignoring patent laws.

“Thailand has revoked the patent on our medicine, ignoring the patent system. Under these circumstances, we have elected not to introduce new medicines there,” Dirk Van Eeden, public affairs director of Abbott International, told the Associated Press (AP).

Wearing shirts reading “Worldwide Boycott Abbott” and “Our labs, our drugs, our responsibility,” the group engaged in chants such as “Hey Abbott, get off it, people over profit,” and shaking symbolic pill bottles with pennies inside.

The initial plan for yesterday’s protest—which featured 22 Harvard students along with nearly 50 other people, including students from University of Massachusetts Medical School and Clark University Medical School—was to march up to the building chanting, to listen to several addresses by speakers, and then to send a delegation of people inside to fill a mock prescription for Kaletra for the people of Thailand, which was presumably going to be denied, according to Luke M. Messac ’08.

However, the protestors were denied entrance into the facility by security guards. At that point, the decision was made to hold the rest of the protest in front of the sign at the entrance to facility grounds.

“What Abbott is doing is not only a human rights violation, but a crime under Thai law,” said Brook K. Baker, a Northeastern University Law professor, in a speech yesterday. “What [Thailand has] done is perfectly legal under World Trade Organization regulations, and yet Abbott is refusing the release the patent.”

After speeches, the protest culminated in a die-in, where the “denied prescription” was carried past the protestors, who fell to the ground, pretending to have died.

Protests similar to the one in Worcester also took place yesterday in Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Austin, Texas, Salem, Ore., Chapel Hill, N.C., and other cities throughout the country.

—Staff writer Yelena S. Mironova can be reached at mironova@fas.harvard.edu.