European-based drug giants want your money

Posted on October 31, 2010 in Health Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Sun Oct 31 2010.    By Angelo Persichilli Political Columnist

Is there any link between multinationals, multiculturalism and mafia, aside from the fact that they all start with “M”?

Of course: they all represent topics we love to hate but do nothing about. I want to talk about all three of them starting this week with the first M-word: multinationals.

We waste a lot of ink condemning politicians when they spend $200 for a dinner, but we ignore negotiations that can remove billions of dollars from our pockets and give them to multinational corporations.

That’s the case with a new round of negotiations now taking place in Ottawa, where the European Union is subtly pushing Canada to extend patent protection for brand-name drugs.

I know it’s a boring subject, but if the pharmaceutical companies get what they want, billions of dollars will be taken out of our pockets and redirected straight into their bank accounts.

Here’s what’s happening:

There are two groups of pharmaceutical companies — the brand-name multinationals that invest money in research and development to create new drugs and, in return, own the “intellectual property” for a certain period of time; and the “generics,” companies that can manufacture the same drugs, at a cheaper price, when the patent for the brand-name expires.

Most of the brand-name companies are based in Europe and the United States, while we have a strong Canadian-owned presence among generics.

In the 1980s, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, in response to high drug prices, introduced so-called “compulsory licensing” legislation. Canadian companies that did their clinical trials in Canada were permitted to apply for and receive a compulsory licence to produce and market in Canada what had been only a brand-name drug in year 17 of its patent period — after paying a royalty to the patent-holding company.

But at the insistence of Pfizer Corp., which advised U.S. president George Bush regarding intellectual property during negotiations on the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, the compulsory licensing issue was reopened. Consequently, the Mulroney government introduced Bill C-91 to eliminate compulsory licensing and extended the patent period to 20 years.

The result was the transfer of billions of dollars from Canadians’ pockets right into multinationals’ accounts. Experts tell me that, on average, when a generic enters a market, within the first month the patented drug loses 65 to 75 per cent of its market share.

For example, the producer of Vasotec in the ’90s fought the introduction of a generic counterpart because its annual Canadian revenues of $120 million — $10 million a month — would have been reduced to about $3 million. The savings for Canadians would have been in the millions.

When the Liberals returned to power in the 1990s and Allan Rock became health minister, he tried to reinstate compulsory licensing. The issue was hotly debated at a cabinet meeting; Rock’s proposal was put to a vote and carried by a slight majority. But when the change was ready to roll out, Jean Chrétien’s PMO stopped it, citing legal problems.

Another spat erupted in 2001 when Rock was trying to make a quick purchase of 900,000 doses of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, known as Cipro, to stockpile for emergency use in case of an anthrax attack by terrorists.

It appeared that Bayer AG, the company that owned the patent for Cipro, wouldn’t be able to meet the request in time, so Rock asked the Canadian generic Apotex to produce the tablets. In the end, Ottawa paid $1.3 million to Apotex ($1.50 per dose) for tablets that were never produced, and the government was forced to get the supply from Bayer for $2.25 million ($2.50 per dose).

Now it appears that European multinationals want to extend the patent rights from 20 years to 25 and, if the government refuses, they will no longer invest billions of dollars in Canada on research and development, jeopardizing thousands of jobs.

In a normal business, I would say that this negotiating tactic was harsh but acceptable. But negotiating for profit by playing with the lives of human beings is repugnant.

For profit, multinationals want to bring prosperity — in the form of investment — to a country where prosperity already exists, while at the same time ignoring countries where people die because they don’t have money to satisfy the multinationals’ inhumane thirst for profit.

Will the government stand up for Canadians?

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