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Big Pharma challenged in India

The Council of Canadians has argued that Big Pharma is a serious threat to public health.

Now, the Associated Press reports, “Doctors Without Borders has challenged Pfizer’s application for an Indian patent for its pneumonia vaccine so cheaper versions can be available to children in poor countries and to humanitarian organizations. The medical aid group, also known as Medicins Sans Frontieres, said [on March 11] that it challenged Pfizer’s patent application [so that] Indian manufacturers [would be able] to make affordable versions of the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine. The group said the vaccine was one of the world’s biggest sellers and that New York-based Pfizer had earned $6 billion from its sales in 2015.”

A Doctors Without Borders media release notes, “This pre-grant opposition—a form of citizen review at the patent examination stage—argues that, on technical grounds, a certain aspect of the vaccine doesn’t merit patenting under India’s Patents Act. …This is the first time a vaccine (biosimilar) patent has been challenged in India by a medical organization and, if successful, will make affordable versions of this lifesaving vaccine available to developing countries and humanitarian organizations. …Pneumonia is the leading cause of death for children under five, killing almost one million children each year.”

Leena Menghaney, who heads Doctors Without Border’s Access Campaign in South Asia, says, “India must rebuff demands from pharmaceutical companies, which are backed by diplomatic pressure tactics of the US and other governments, that India change its patentability standards to restrict generic competition.”

Another way that Big Pharma seeks to extend its profits is by backing so-called ‘free trade’ deals.

The Globe and Mail has reported, “These days, the brand-name drug companies continue to lobby Canadian trade negotiators to further extend patent protection, confirms [Canada’s pharmaceutical industry’s lobby group] Rx&D’s president, Russell Williams… In the negotiations leading up to [CETA] between Canada and the European Union, which was largely completed in 2014 and now awaits ratification in Europe, the European drug makers and Rx&D pressed for, and won, an increase in drug patents from 20 to 22 years in cases of regulatory delay (that is, where government safety concerns delay introduction of a drug).”

In addition, “Canada freely ceded similar drug patent extensions within the new 12-nation Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP), which includes Japan and the U.S., the countries that are home to all of the Big-Pharma firms not based in Europe. …[That’s because] the brand-name giants pushed for extended patent protection not just for traditional drugs but also for the new class of biotech-derived drugs known as biologics.” In that instance, Bloomberg has reported, “The [TPP] establishes at least a five-year minimum period during which brand-name drug companies have exclusive rights to sell treatments made from living organisms, known as biologics, after they’ve been approved.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has expressed his support for a Canada-India free trade agreement that would likely include similar provisions for drug companies.

Council of Canadians health care campaigner Michael Butler has noted, “It is estimated that changes to patent protection for pharmaceutical drugs in CETA could end up costing our public health care system anywhere between $850 million to $1.65 billion annually. This is up to 13 per cent of the total drug costs Canadians pay annually.” Additionally, in 2010 biologics comprised over 14 percent of the Canadian pharmaceutical market and cost the Canadian health care system more than $3 billion a year; biologics are expected to grow to approximately 20 percent of the market over the next decade.

There are other costs to this too, including in lives lost.

The National Post has reported, “Canadians who can’t afford their prescriptions add between $7 and $9 billion in costs to the health care system, a new report states. …Many don’t fill prescriptions because they can’t afford to, a phenomena exacerbated by the patchwork of coverage in different provinces. Those who can’t or won’t fill their prescriptions end up back in hospital and the phenomena leads to ‘higher mortality’…If universal coverage were combined with other strategies, the Mowat report estimates national pharmacare could save Canadians and their governments a combined $14 billion a year.”

The Council of Canadians expresses its solidarity with Doctors Without Borders in their pre-grant opposition to Pfizer.