OTTAWA - Canada is pushing back against a campaign by activists trying to block what they say are onerous intellectual property rules that would raise the price of pharmaceuticals in poor countries.
The campaign by the humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontiers reared its head this week during the ongoing 11-country Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. The 18th round of the talks is being held this week in Malaysia.
The TPP talks are shrouded in secrecy, but a leak has revealed details of an American proposal that would extend patent protections for pharmaceutical companies, delaying the production of cheaper generic drugs.
Medecins Sans Frontiers has been campaigning against "aggressive intellectual property rules" it says would drive up the costs of drugs that treat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in developing countries.
The group is calling on Canada to speak out against the proposal when it takes part in this week's talks, along with the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Peru, Chile and Mexico. Japan is to join the bloc later.
Malaysia has already spoken out against the intellectual property proposal, said Judit Rius, the U.S. manager of the organization's campaign, who also wants Canada to add its voice.
"Canada is an essential player in this," Rius said in an interview from Washington. "It would be great if the Canadian government also expressed their views on this issue."
Rius said she got a fair hearing when she briefed Canadian officials on the issue.
But the government appears to be leaning towards backing big pharma, following the pattern it has set in a separate round of free trade negotiations with the European Union.
Rudy Husny, a spokesman for International Trade Minister Ed Fast, said Canada believes strong intellectual property protection is good for economic growth.
"A strong intellectual property regime that ensures the protection and enforcement of IP rights is central for any growing knowledge-based economy, in order to foster an environment that promotes innovation, attracts new investment, and stimulates economic growth," Husny said in an email.
"With regards to intellectual property protection in the pharmaceutical sector, our government has always sought to strike a balance between promoting innovation and job creation and ensuring that Canadians continue to have access to the affordable drugs they need. That remains our commitment."
However, activists groups like MSF fear that if the intellectual property proposals ultimately form part of the partnership, a new more onerous standard in the sector will have been set for other trade negotiations.
"Unless certain damaging provisions are removed, the TPP has the potential to become the most harmful trade pact ever for access to medicines," the group said in an open letter to the 11 governments that it released this week to coincide with the resumption of talks.
Generic drugs have brought down the price of anti-retroviral medicines by 99 per cent in the last 13 years, the letter says.
"The TPP is being negotiated without opportunity for meaningful public input," it reads.
It says that the proposal "will roll back public health safeguards and flexibilities enshrined in international law, and put in place far-reaching monopoly protections that will restrict generic competition and keep medicine prices unaffordable."
Generic manufacturers can only begin legally producing a drug once the patent on it has expired.
They can then sell it for far cheaper because they haven't had to foot the bill for expensive research and development.
Major pharmaceutical companies say they need a robust regime of intellectual property protection so they can pay for the costly research and development behind the development of new drugs.
The issue remains on the table, unresolved, in the protracted free trade negotiations between Canada and the European Union.
Europe is pushing for stiffer patent protection for brand-name drugs in the face of intense pressure from the generic drug industry in Canada.
Several of the provinces are also concerned because they see they don't want to see their drug costs rise.
The Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association has lobbied hard against the intellectual property proposals in both the Canada-EU and Trans-Pacific talks.
The American proposal "would create significant delays in the ability of generic companies to develop, manufacture and export new generic drugs in TPP member countries," the association says.