From Legal and Constitutional Affairs to Industry, senate reform to science and technology, and East to West – Block, that is: This is a culture shock in more ways than one. The room is bigger, brighter and full of familiar faces. But it does not, alas, have a cookie buffet, which is a Senate innovation I wish the Commons would consider adopting.
By a stroke of luck – clearly, the committee gods are smiling on me – the clash of patent and generic medicine titans was slightly delayed by procedural bickering, so I didn’t miss anything. Although I will if I don’t start paying attention to the presentation.
First witness: Bioniche, a publicly-traded drug company and a member of Team Brand Name Medicine (Death to Generics!). The representative – whose name I didn’t catch – describes her company’s latest venture in glowing, near religious terms. It’s a cattle vaccine against e. coli and, apparently, it will do wonderful things for the beef sector while keeping Canadians safe.
And now, the other side of the story: Jim Keon, longtime spokesguy for Canadian generics, here in his capacity as head of the Canadian Drug Manufacturers Association. He lauds the many achievements of the generics, but notes that current patent protection laws have a long way to go as far as encouraging his industry. He stresses that they too believe in protecting intellectual property, but that the Canadian regime goes far beyond what is reasonable or, for that matter, required.
And with that, he goes on a tear against the patent industry, which, he claims, spends less than one percent of profits on research and development. He also brings up the Canada Gazette notice (posted here a few days ago). As far as he’s concerned, the proposed regulatory changes are, in fact, an attempt to impose more stringent protection for patent drugs, mostly via evergreening.
Back to Team Brand Name, with Rob Livingston, who chafes at the suggestion that patent medicine doesn’t spend oodles of money on R&D. Yeah, you can pretty much guess the rest.
Finally, Linda Gowman, who represents Titan Technologies, a London, Ont.-based… does something with water. I didn’t quite catch the specifics. I’m not sure whether she’s pro- or anti- patent protection/freedom, but I’m leaning towards the former, which would make Keon the only one speaking up for Team Generic. They’re used to being the underdogs, so that won’t faze him for a second.
With that, it’s on to the questions. First up, Dan McTeague, who, if I recall correctly, has an opinion or two on the issue of excessive patent protection. He’s particularly interested in the apparent return of the evergreening provisions – the proposed regulatory changes – and asks for more details on exactly what the government seems to be trying to do. He also manages to work in the fact that Apotex, the country’s largest generic company, actually spends over 16% of its profits on R&D.
Keon gladly takes him up on the offer to lambaste the government for its backdoor footsy. He notes that neither he nor the provinces were given any notice of the proposed changes.
Shifting his focus to Team Brand Name, McTeague takes on Livingstone. The two go back and forth over various claims, and eventually the chair steps in to separate the combatants, and moves onto the Bloc Québécois.
Can I just say how relieved I am to find out that I wasn’t just being paranoid and ill-informed by wondering about that Gazette notice? When you don’t follow an issue closely, there’s always that terror it will turn out to be old, stale news.
Oh yeah, the committee. Bloc Québécois MP Robert Vincent is up and is giving Livingstone a surprisingly tough time. Traditionally, the BQ has been very pro-patent, since so much of the sector is located in and around Montreal, but this guy sounds almost as skeptical as Dan McTeague.
Aha, and now, the designated government witness-wrangler: Colin Carrie, the parliamentary secretary who clearly has his marching orders from the minister. He challenges the two sides to make their best respective case over whether increased protection will lead to more R&D spending in Canada.
Keon sticks to his guns, and points to the latest data provided by the Patent Medicine Prices Review Board, which shows that the amount invested has actually decreased, despite more rigid restrictions on generics, and notes that despite what Team Brand Name may claim, “the numbers just aren’t there.” In fact, he says, the generics spend “almost double”.
Wow. Is that true? Livingstone doesn’t say. Well, he doesn’t deny it, but explains around it, pointing to the absence of biotech from the table, presumably one of the spendiest sectors, as far as research. He acknowledges that the debate will go on – and that he and Keon will “continue to be employed” in defending their respective industries. He admits that the overall figure has gone “below 10%” – which he’d like to see go up.
Why, Carrie asks Keon, if competition leads to lower prices, are Canadian generics so very expensive? Keon notes that costs are now capped in Ontario and Quebec, with more provincial agreements being negotiated as we speak. Or he speaks.
Finally, the NDP gets its chance: Peggy Nash brings up the same argument. Why aren’t the brand names spending money on research, since that was part of the reason why they were given increased patent protection? Man, the brand name guys are getting a rough ride. Poor Ron Livingstone is starting to sound a little plaintive.
Back to the Conservatives and Bruce Stanton, who at first seems to be somewhat halfheartedly trying to defend the evergreening changes, but really, he’s more annoyed about the slur on his government for failing to give the industry (or the provinces) a heads up. Keon insists these changes were a “complete surprise” to him.
Stanton wonders whether the meeting has gone slightly far afield as far as the subject of the day, which, he claims, is science and technology, and not… “this.” I’m not sure what he means by “this.” It sounds like science and technology to me, but I’m just a humble liveblogger. “We can perhaps have this debate another day,” he notes. And the day after, and the day after that.
Robert Vincent delivers a diatribe against the scourge of evergreening; it’s the reason why only the patent companies spend as little as 2% on research. In response, Keon gives a mini-recap of How A Brand Name Drug Goes Generic, and notes that just a few years ago, government(s) had gone to the mat with the patent industry over evergreening, which liberated many a patent. Now, they’re moving backwards, whirling towards the opposite of freedom.
Good heavens, it’s André Arthur! I don’t think I’ve ever seen him at committee before, let alone heard him ask a question. He’s sitting with the Tories, which isn’t a surprise given his usual leanings, and wants to know why brand name companies don’t “cut their losses” by going into the generic business themselves. Cut out the middleman, as it were. Well, as it turns out, they’ve tried that very tactic in the past, but it turned out that they “weren’t very good at it,” admits Livingstone – even when attempting to genericize their own drugs. Different distribution system, other logistical issues – Arthur looks somewhat bemused, but moves onto grilling the cow vaccine woman over government subsidies.
Peggy Nash goes back to the re-evergreening gambit and gets a bonus point for using the phrase ‘draconian’ to describe the previous (and possible future) situation. She wonders if the patent companies requested those amendments. Livingstone doesn’t answer that question either, well, not exactly. His response, however, sounds suspiciously like the text of the notice.
Nash isn’t put off. She wants to know if the industry was consulted and Livingstone – choosing his words carefully – notes that they are involved in the current consultation. But he won’t say whether the industry lobbied for the amendments. “We did not specifically request any wording,” he claims, but they did “point out” that the regulations could be “clarified”.
Keon is having none of that. He says it’s a significant change, and once again reminds the committee of the court ruling that these amendments seem to undermine.
McTeague gets to wrap things up. He says he’s “flabbergasted” the government would try to pull a fast one like this and orders Carrie to give his minister notice that more consultation is necessary. He then challenges Livingstone on his definition of “research and development” – does it include advertising, as it does under tax law? Clearly, he and Livingstone both see the “less than 10% figure” as the Achilles’ heel of the patent position.
And with that, the chair dismisses the witnesses.