Category Archives: Uncategorized

All eyes on India’s drug patent case

This week, India’s highest court will hear final arguments in a landmark case that could severely limit access to affordable medicine. The Swiss pharmaceutical company, Novartis, took the government of India to court after it denied the company a patent for a modified version of an existing cancer drug. This process, known as evergreening, is clever way to extend a drug’s patent life by tweaking it before its patent expires. You would think these minor tweaks would result in a superior drug capable of curing all ills or, at the very least, improve the existing formulation. But, in all too many cases, evergreening doesn’t result in enhanced benefits, though it certainly deepens Big Pharma’s pockets. And of course we all know they’re cash strapped. Stephanie Nolen of the Globe and Mail reports here.

James Cowan: Not all senators against bill C-393

Liberal Senator James Cowan and Leader of the Opposition shares his opinion on the state of Bill C-393 this weekend at the Toronto Star:

I am writing to correct a point made in this otherwise excellent article. Craig and Marc Kielburger made a strong case that Bill C-393 could have gone a long way to save potentially millions of lives. They went on to say that “Canada’s unelected Senate” stalled the bill that had passed in the House of Commons.

Canadians should know that it was not the whole of the Senate, but rather the Conservative majority that insisted on delaying action on the bill until the government fell on the no-confidence motion in the House of Commons. In fact, it was a Liberal senator, Yoine Goldstein, who introduced the first bill in Parliament in March 2009 to fix the problem with Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime, and help make it possible for people in developing countries to access affordable life-saving medicines. That bill unfortunately died on the order paper when Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament. Bill C-393, the NDP bill referred to by the Kielburgers, was virtually identical to Goldstein’s bill.

My Liberal colleagues and I — joined by both a Conservative and a Progressive Conservative senator — spoke strongly about the importance of this bill, and urged that it be considered promptly and passed into law before the expected election. To our disappointment, with their new majority in the Senate, the Conservatives were able to repeatedly adjourn debate on the bill, and effectively stalled it until the government fell.

The issue has not gone away. The need for affordable drugs in developing countries is as great as ever.My colleagues and I are already discussing the best way to move forward with this important initiative.

James S. Cowan, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate

CIHR Reverses Drug Trial Policy

Canada’s national funding agency for health sciences, CIHR, made a controversial move to cancel a policy that required full public disclosure on results from drug trials. Without full disclosure of study results, the public may not be privy to important early details about drugs that may be ineffective or worse, significantly toxic. Transparency, a necessity for gathering evidence and truth in making healthcare related decisions, is believed to have been further undermined by the lobbying efforts of Canada’s pharmaceutical corporations. CIHR has increasingly drawn fire for its closeness with industry, having appointed last year an executive from Pfizer to their national board. Quoting Sir Iain Chalmers, co-founder of the U.K.’s respected Cochrane Collaboration research body: “It seems to me that CIHR has decided that it’s going to put my interests and the interests of other patients behind those of industry…. I think that’s tragic.”

The full article by the National Post is available here.

Are we human enough to discuss human rights?

While working on some research for an International Relations (my discipline) course on access to essential medicines, I came across the infamous Alma-Ata Declaration of 1978 and was pleased to find exactly what I was looking for:

“Article I: The Conference strongly reaffirms that health, which is a state of physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, is a fundamental human right…”

I thought for a moment about what a group of IR students would say about the ‘right to health.’ You see, IR students like to debate this whole idea of “basic human rights” (BHR). When deciding whether or not something is a BHR, we like to put all our cards on the table: colonialism, culture, religion, historical context, socioeconomic conditions, etc.. We like to calmly indicate that we wish to speak; when given the opportunity we speak slowly, so that everyone can understand how damn insightful we’re being while demonstrating our deep, inclusive understanding of said right/region/issue. It usually goes something like this:

“I would challenge the idea that (INSERT BHR) is a universal human right. Look at (INSERT COUNTRY)- the majority of their population is/believes in/practices (INSERT RELIGION/CULTURE/SOCIOECONOMIC CONDITION) and their (RELIGION/CULTURE/HISTORICAL/SOCIOECONOMIC CONTEXT)) wouldn’t value or support (INSERT BHR,) and in fact, contradicts that right entirely.”

We then sit back and observe the effect of the incredible insight we have just provided to our peers/the points we have just scored with our professor.

What is that you say? There are human rights that are transferrable across all of these things? NUH-UH! Everything can be contested! Don’t believe me? Let me provide an example. Last term in a fourth-year level seminar we were discussing what constitutes basic human security by mining our way through dozens of definitions from various states, organizations and documents. The definitions covered everything: death, injury, reasonable access to sufficient sources of food and water, safety from political persecution, freedom from movement, the list goes on.

We contested everything: women’s rights in Middle Eastern countries (“how could we possibly say they should prosecute sexual violence, or stop public stoning? Their beliefs just don’t support that”, or my favourite, “I don’t think we can say that women’s rights are universal human rights”), Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision  (“a bigger infringement on rights”, one argued, “would be to oppose this culturally accepted practice”), and food/ political expression/ health/ happiness (these items were the subject of many eye rolls… “duh, these are solely WESTERN values”). At the end of it, we could all agree on one basic human right: the right to life, as in, you should be allowed to walk down the street without being shot down.

So what about this ‘right to health’? Over the last two years I’ve come to learn much about the access to essential medicines debate through volunteer, research, and course work.  After learning a lot about patent law, the pharmaceutical industry, government regulation, and public health policy, I can confidently say that the issue is thoroughly depressing. Want an issue where the West and the rest don’t care? It’s health in developing countries. The culprits aren’t obesity, diabetes, cancer or heart disease, but diseases like malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS, and regional diseases like African Sleeping Sickness, that could be treated or cured with modern medicine we have readily available and generally don’t use all that much. But there is no money, no purchasing power, no affordable drugs, no viable market, and sporadic prevention programs. So people die.

In Canada, we had the opportunity with a recent bill to potentially make an impact on the access to medicines issue and prevent people from dying. All of the experts who work on the ground in these developing countries, who see the illness and issues at first hand, said this bill was what we needed to do. The UN Development Programme, Medicines Sans Frontiers, Stephen Lewis, James Orbinski and Richard Elliot, all stepped up to the plate to explain to our legislators and citizens why this bill would work in providing life-saving medicines to those that need them. Our Senators (mostly of the Conservative variety), who might know a bit about whatever it is they do, but know little to nothing about public health, said it wouldn’t work. They came up with all the excuses they could muster, none of them making any sense in relation to the bill’s content.  All the while, pharmaceutical lobbyists concerned about any change to Canada’s monopolistic patent law, trickled in and out of parliament. And you know what most people did? Believed them.

Did you really believe that ignoring the experts, and siding with Senators was the right thing to do? Is your biggest concern REALLY whether or not pharmaceutical companies will be okay after this bill? Or was it the easiest to believe?

Because if everything the experts were saying was true – that this bill would successfully provide life-saving medications without costing pharmaceutical companies or Canadians anything – you would be really, really upset.

And isn’t apathy easier, than being really upset and disappointed? Doesn’t that sound like a lot of work?

Are rights, like access to medicine that could save the life of your mother/child/brother/sister, really all that subjective? Or are we just afraid of realizing how objective they are, because we would be too disgusted with how often we violate them?

I recently watched a very honest and inspiring TEDx Toronto talk given by Sol Guy. He said if we’re debating human rights issues, then we have to be human. Only when we become more human, do we create change.

I know, I instantly pictured a bunch of half-human, IR-student zombies too.

One more contributor bio: Natasha Ovtcharenko

Natasha Ovtcharenko is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto studying Political Science and Human Biology: Global Health. An active member of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines and a research assistant at the Initiative for Drug Equity and Access, she is constantly learning about the different dimensions of intellectual property rights and access to medicines. When not reading up on the latest updates on the EU-India FTA she can be found exploring Toronto’s coffee shops and art galleries.

TRIPS = not just vacations

All this talk about access to medicines brings up the question, who regulates this stuff? Who decides that patents are 20 years long? And who decides that data exclusivity is (usually) around 5-10?

The answer is that it’s largely controlled by the WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, conveniently shortened to TRIPS. The agreement is pretty extensive  but the gist of it is, patents last 20 years and governments can set the conditions around what qualifies for a patent themselves. MSF sums up that aspect nicely:

“Countries should therefore determine what kind of inventions deserves patents in the area of pharmaceuticals, in light of their own social and economic conditions. Some governments, such as Brazil, Thailand or India, have done precisely that.  In today’s world, for many patients, that decision can be a question of life or death. ”

Data exclusivity? Vaguely referred to as “data protection” against “unfair commercial use” with no specific time frame. That’s left a lot of room for negotiation and debate.

The quote from MSF’s Access Campaign and the rest of their TRIPS briefing can be found here

Rick’s Rant – Senate Defeats Bill with no Debate

Rick Mercer rants about how the unelected Canadian Senators (members of our second chamber of ‘sober thought’) kill important bills passed by elected members of parliament like C-393 and C-311. Bills that would have enabled us to better protect human lives and our natural environment–quite ridiculous for a modern democracy to endure, no?

So much for sober thought–though inebriated people tend to provide lively discussion more often, I’ll admit.

Sidenote: I wonder if Rick has as much trouble finding empty alleyways to shoot out of as I do.