Monopoly: Global health edition

(By Polly Zhang, Queen’s University)


In a world as interconnected as ours, trade agreements and laws protecting intellectual property are of necessity. Governments should work together to ensure people’s right to privacy, freedom of speech, and access to material and cyber goods.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a free trade and corporate rights deal that is currently being drafted by leading countries in the world. Its original signatories include Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore but more and more countries are considering joining. Canada, the United States, Australia, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico, and Japan are in the negotiation stage, and South Korea and Taiwan have expressed interest. This accounts for most of the countries in the Pacific Rim – crucial to international trade. Talks of the partnership, then called the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement, started in 2005 among the original signatories. In 2010, it expanded to include the eight negotiating countries and became known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Ideally, a trade agreement involving so many of the world’s economic leaders should aim to improve global trade and economic development. However, negotiations were held in secret and the TPP only came into the public eye from a leaked draft of the agreement. Furthermore, it was revealed that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other corporations want to “fast-track” legislative approval. This would effectively prevent the U.S. Congress from debating or changing anything in the agreement. Such haste and secrecy can only lead to one question: what are the governments trying to hide?

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the TPP is a “secretive, multi-national trade agreement that threatens to extend restrictive intellectual property laws across the globe and rewrite international rules on its enforcement.” Considering the TPP has been negotiated in secret by corporate lobbyists and unelected government trade officials, EFF’s accusations don’t sound so far-fetched.

Intellectual property laws grant people exclusive rights to intangible assets such as music, literature, discoveries and inventions. Common types of IP rights include copyright, trademark, and patents. Since the start of global Internet and cyber-sharing, intellectual property rights have been hotly debated. In the U.S., bills such as Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) created uproars in North America in 2011 alone. The TPP extends much further than the borders of North America and includes much more regulation.

Aside from the war that’s raging in cyberspace, an aspect of the TPP that has received much criticism is the detrimental effect it will have on drug policy and global health. For years, governments have made commitments to place public health over commercial interests, yet the TPP pushes for a list of new patent laws that will change them.

Proposed provisions include lowering the bar for patentability and increasing patent terms, allowing big-name pharmaceutical companies easier grants to patents for longer periods of time. Specifically, the TPP proposes a new 20-year patent extension for modifications of existing medicines regardless of the degree of modification. Anything from changing dosage amounts to the way the drug is consumed, even if it doesn’t provide any therapeutic improvement for its patients, can result in an extended 20-year patent. Along with the original 20 years for a new patent and the years it takes to process a patent, a single pharmaceutical company can have exclusive rights to a drug for decades.

The problem with patents on drugs is the economic harm they impose on patients who need them. In many cases, patents limit accessibility to drugs based on economic status. Imagine this: Advil is the only company that has the rights to produce cold medicine. Monopolizing allows Advil to charge however much they want for the drug – hundreds, even thousands of dollars. With the average cold, if you can’t afford the treatment, you can weather out the symptoms and come out perfectly fine. You can’t do that with cancer. Or HIV/AIDS. If you can’t afford treatment for terminal illnesses, it’s a matter of life and death.

Many of the prices set by pharmaceutical companies are unfeasible for those in developed countries, let alone developing countries where diseases such as HIV/AIDS are pandemic. At one point, treatment for HIV/AIDS was US$ 10,000 per person per year.

However, without a patent, generic companies are allowed to produce the same “generic” drug. More and more companies on the market producing the same product drives down the price of the drug – why would you buy Advil for $100 when you can buy Tylenol for $5? In the case of HIV/AIDS, since the start of generics, the price has been reduced to US$ 140 per person per year.

Another major problem with patenting on drugs is how it affects the direction of innovation towards cures for many diseases. As mentioned, patenting laws allow pharmaceutical companies to generate massive amounts of revenue for decades at a time. This propels their direction of innovation to finding cures for diseases that would make them the most money. In other words, more research is going towards diseases and illnesses that mostly affect those in wealthy developed countries because they have the means to pay for expensive treatment. Many diseases that affect a majority of developing countries are often neglected because of the lack of potential revenue.

Diseases such as leprosy, African sleeping sickness, and Trachoma are dubbed Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) because they aren’t getting the amount of attention they deserve. Along with malaria, a prominent disease in many developing countries, these diseases affect millions of people a year. While many NTDs don’t kill, they hinder people’s ability to work and generate income for themselves. People affected are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and disease.

With lack of drug availability, combined with economic barriers set by pharmaceutical companies, it’s becoming harder every day to treat those in developing countries. Organizations such as Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are working hard on the ground to ensure that they can offer treatment for NTDs to as many people as possible. However, until treatment for NTDs become widely available through generic licensing or price reductions, it’s impossible to fully treat NTDs on a global scale.

Jessie MacAlphine, a first-year life sciences student at the University of Toronto, developed a treatment for malaria earlier this year and criticizes the commercialization of pharmaceutical companies. “From an ethical perspective, pharmaceutical companies appear to be losing the moral standards of modern medicine,” she told The Varsity. She plans to patent her treatment for malaria to prevent large pharmaceutical companies from acquiring a monopoly on it.

While the fight for more generic licensing and less monopolizing of essential medicines by pharmaceutical companies is a global battle, the issue hits close to home as well. Universities like Queen’s provide a lot of the basic research that big foundations and pharmaceutical companies use to develop their drugs. The basic research can be patented as well and this gives universities the power to decide how they are going to license their intellectual property. They can choose to sign non-exclusive licenses, allowing multiple companies to produce the same drug and eliminating the chance of a monopoly. They can also renegotiate the terms of their patent license with pharmaceutical companies to reduce drug prices.

In 2001, a group of students at Yale reached out to their university about licensing policies. Stavudine, more commonly known as D4T, one of the first AIDS drugs, was developed at Yale. As mentioned, treatment for HIV/AIDS at the time was more than US$ 10,000 per person per year. After renegotiation with Bristol Myers Squib, the company selling the drug, there was a 90% price drop.

Although many organizations are fighting unfair licensing and trade agreements on all frontiers, the TPP threatens to undo much of the progress. Everything ranging from drug policy to food regulation to internet censorship to environmental health will be affected. Negotiators call the TPP a “21st century model trade agreement”, a template for future international trade agreements. Yet, this “model” agreement is hidden from the public, negotiated behind closed doors in cooperation with big-name corporations. In a society that claims to be democratic and for the people, a secret international agreement in favour of corporate dollars does not a bright future make.