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Patent protection stirs Canada EU trade talks

Exclusive rights for 10 years feared to drive up drug plan costs.


September 17, 2012
by CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA — Officials from the European Union will be participating in the penultimate session in their long-running trade talks road show in Ottawa today (Sept. 17) – the final is set for Brussels in October – intended to finally close at year’s end.

Battle lines are forming around the previously under-the-radar issue of intellectual property protection for pharmaceuticals.

At stake is whether Canada will agree to meet the European standard that gives pharmaceutical companies exclusive rights to detailed information (data exclusivity) on new patented drugs for 10 years, only a few years after Ottawa raised the domestic ceiling from five to eight.

Patent protection, along with government procurement at the provincial level and protection schemes in milk and cheese products, have been the key European demands for opening up their lucrative if economically troubled market to Canadians.

But critics are making the point that the longer the wait before the generic industry is barred from producing their own cheaper versions, the higher the cost to provinces and Canadians.

The Council of Canadians, a left-wing activist group, trumpets a 2011 economic study concluding that lengthening data exclusivity and patent terms to EU standards could delay generic versions by 3.5 years and cost drug plans close to $3 billion.

Given the pocket-book ramifications, Russell Williams, president of Canada’s Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies, concedes he has the harder selling job.

The lobby group released a poll suggesting three-quarters of Canadians support identical or superior intellectual property protection to Canada’s major trading partners. The group also plans to release reports backing the contention that enhanced patent protection leads to more investment in research and development, and more jobs for Canadians.

“We spend well over $1 billion a year in research and three-quarters of that is in clinical trials,” said Williams. “It is true it’s been slipping (since 2007) but that’s because Canada hasn’t been competitive on (intellectual property protection) at the global level.”

Coincidentally, the Council of Canadians and other civil society groups released their own commissioned polling. It suggested that while 81% of Canadians support a trade deal with Europe, 69% would oppose one if it meant higher drug costs even if it does encourage more research.

The contradictory findings, both from reputable pollsters, suggests Canadians may be confused about the complex issue and are open to being swayed.

The critics of enhanced intellectual property protection say Canadians pay 20 per cent more for patented drugs than citizens of France and Germany, but to Williams that’s an argument backing his side.

The EU already has a 10-year regime and drug costs have not skyrocketed, he points out. As well, extending protection by two years won’t show up in drug prices until at least 2022, he says, while the benefits of attracting more research dollars to Canada could kick in much sooner.

A spokesman for Trade Minister Ed Fast said the issue of patent protection remains unresolved.

In broad strokes, Ottawa estimates the boost of a trade deal to Canada’s gross domestic will be in the neighbourhood of $12 billion.

© 2012 The Canadian Press