AIDS controversy dominates Abbott Labs' annual meeting - Abbott's Greed

AIDS controversy dominates Abbott Labs' annual meeting

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By Bruce Japsen staff reporter

Chicago Tribune Published April 27, 2007, 12:21 PM CDT

Abbott Laboratories won't back away from its controversial decision to withhold drug applications in Thailand, Chief Executive Miles White told AIDS activists at the North Chicago company's annual shareholders meeting.

White, in one his most prominent public statements since the giant drugmaker became embroiled in a dispute with Thai officials over its pricing of the AIDS drug known as Kaletra, reiterated the company's determination to protect its intellectual property.

Early this year, Thailand said that it couldn't afford the price Abbott charges for Kaletra, and disclosed plans to issue what's known as a "compulsory license" for the drug. International trade law permits governments to bypass pharmaceutical patent protections under certain limited circumstances, and Thailand's threat represents a significant challenge to Abbott's patent protections.

Abbott responded to the threat by announcing it won't register any newly developed drugs in Thailand. That move will deprive Thailand of new drugs just coming to market, including a form of Kaletra that -- in contrast to the current form -- doesn't require refrigeration.

AIDS activists have condemned that action as "blackmail" and a threat to access, given Thailand's hot climate and underdeveloped healthcare infrastructure.

Activist groups had publicized their plans to demonstrate at Abbott's annual meeting, held today at the company's sprawling campus in Northfield.

Stockholders greeted White with loud applause, and at various times the crowd shouted down the protesters. Only a relative handful of activists actually entered the hall for the stockholder meeting, but a larger number was outside

White noted the company's strong financial performance, saying "our net earnings rose to a new high of $4.1 billion" in 2006.

Among the protesters was Jon Ungphakorn, a former member of Thailand's senate and a longtime AIDS activist. During the meeting's question and answer period, Ungphakorn stepped to the microphone to deliver a blistering broadside.

The pharmaceutical company, he said, is holding drugs "for ransom," and making "hostages" of patients in Thailand.

"Abbott is certainly no 'Promise for Life' in Thailand," he said, in a reference to the company's slogan.

"You're wildly mistaken," White responded, asking the challenger "Why would we submit" the new drug for approval, if Thailand plans to make generic forms of patented Abbott drugs anyway, he asked.

While the meeting was under way, AIDS activists were scheduled to be staging protests at Abbott facilities around the world.