It is, quite frankly, easy to be critical of Big Pharma.
More often than not, when talking about these companies, we are talking about massive corporations, goliaths that make a great target for critics -- particularly when an issue such as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is on the table.
However, there is a risk in that, and that risk will be borne mostly by patients.
I am not only the President and CEO of the Asthma Society of Canada, but I am also a person with asthma who depends, every day, on prescription medications to keep breathing. And, as my friends at the Lung Association say, if you can't breathe, nothing else matters. For people like me, Big Pharma means Big Breathing.
A contentious piece of the CETA negotiations has been the strengthening of Canada's intellectual property (IP) protection to bring it on par with those in place across Europe. To many of CETA's critics, this is perceived as something that is going to drive up prices for medicines and boost profits for some European-based drug companies.
But this simplistic argument not only ignores what strong protection of Intellectual Property means to the millions of Canadians who are living with chronic conditions, especially those for which there is no cure, like asthma, it is also based on incomplete and insufficient data.
Stronger patent protections, in fact, will only apply to the new drugs, those discovered after CETA is ratified. Taking into account both the political process for ratification and the length of time it takes to discover and develop a new drug, we are (somewhat sadly) more than a decade away from one of these new drugs making it onto the shelves of your local pharmacy.
Yes, there may indeed be an increased cost for those new drugs, but the government has promised compensation to cover any increase, one would assume to be funded by the economic growth resulting from CETA. But even more important for patients, however, is that if we don't ratify CETA, the likelihood of investment in the development of such a drug decreases dramatically and it will never get to our pharmacies at any price.
Strengthening Canada's IP standards is not only a key pillar of a trade agreement that will bring greater prosperity to Canada; it will also create an environment that encourages medical innovation and creates new opportunities for patients seeking a cure or relief from pain.
The simple reality is these new medicines and treatments are the result of years of research and trials, and the investment of millions of dollars.
It is Canada's challenge to ensure this country is attractive to those who are making the decisions on where to invest their dollars for the discovery and development of innovative new treatments.
So while critics try to dismiss stronger IP as nothing more than a technique to pad the bottom line of a faceless corporation, for millions of Canadians it could be a matter of life and breath.
Every year in Canada, about 300 people, including 20 children, die an asthma-related death.
And there are more than three million Canadians living with asthma who are relying on the discovery and development of new medicines to ensure this death rate is decreased and that both deaths and the fear of death due to asthma will be decreased.
Current available medications, while extremely helpful, are just not enough. More than 57% of Canadians with asthma do not have their condition under control, and new, innovative medicines are part of keeping them in school and at work instead of in hospitals.
Asthma patients benefit from a vibrant, innovative pharmaceutical industry in Canada, an industry that discovers new treatments that allow them to live healthy, active lives. By protecting intellectual property and encouraging more research, we increase our chances of discovering and developing new and innovative treatment options that will help all asthma patients, from people with medium to mild symptoms to those who suffer with severe asthma and are at risk of death.
The CETA proposals are not without precedent. When Canada achieved the first Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 1987 and then again with NAFTA in 1994, a significant part of these agreements was increasing patent protections in Canada. That resulted in an unprecedented wave of activity in innovation and development of new medicines and vaccines in Canada, for which I, as a patient, am appreciative today.
But that was 25 years ago. While Canada stood still, the rest of the world evolved and has surpassed Canada. We must keep pace because patients in Canada deserve the very best.
Has investment by pharmaceutical companies on research and development in Canada been enough? No. Even pharmaceutical companies acknowledge this. But there are many factors that go into our global competitiveness for research activity and patent protection as negotiated in trade agreements is just one of them.
The FTA and NAFTA did help in achieving gains in research without significant price hikes -- drug price increases have been the same or below other goods and services and are below the international average. Furthermore, prices for patented drugs in Canada are completely regulated, and this won't change under CETA. As well, provincial governments have been extremely effective at lowering the cost of generic drugs and that too will continue to ease the burden of total drug costs in Canada.
It is encouraging for the three million Canadians living with asthma to see Canada engaging in a unique opportunity to take a dramatic step forward, helping millions of Canadians by improving the medicines and treatments that are available to them.
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