The Swiss-based transnational Novartis International AG is the world’s largest pharmaceutical corporation in terms of sales.
In 2014, Novartis posted an operating income of $10.7 billion on net sales of $58 billion. And according to reports filed by the company with the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada, it is also interested in so-called ‘free-trade’ agreements. Those documents state, “Novartis is working through our Industry Association, Innovative Medicines Canada (IMC) on the monitoring” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “and the impact to Intellectual Property (IP) in Canada”, as well as “on the implementation” of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).
Why might that be?
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.”
The provisions in CETA and the TPP are highly profitable for transnational corporations like Novartis, but harmful to the public interest.
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.
The director-general of the World Health Organization has stated, “If these agreements open trade yet close the door to affordable medicines we have to ask the question: is this really progress at all.”
That is a very legitimate concern. The Globe and Mail has reported that, “Nearly one-quarter of Canadians say they or someone in their home can’t afford prescribed drugs and are splitting pills and skipping doses to make the medicine go further – or not renewing or even filling prescriptions, according to a [July 2015] poll.”
And 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.”
That report also notes that we now spend more annually on prescription drugs than doctors.
Highly profitable transnational corporations have been successfully lobbying governments for longer patents through ‘free trade’ deals. Those longer patents mean greater profits for Big Pharma, higher drug costs for you and me, billions of dollars in additional costs to the health care system, and higher mortality rates for those who cannot afford these drugs.