Sunday, February 10, 2013

What were Lilly thinking?

Canada Denies Patent For Drug, So US Pharma Company Demands $100 Million As Compensation For 'Expropriation'

from the money-for-nothing dept

An increasingly problematic aspect of free trade agreements (FTAs) is the inclusion of investor-state provisions that essentially allow companies -- typically huge multinationals -- to challenge the policies of signatory governments directly. The initial impulse behind these was to offer some protection against the arbitrary expropriation of foreign investments by less-than-democratic governments. But now corporations have realised that they can use the investor-state dispute mechanism to challenge all kinds of legitimate but inconvenient decisions in any signatory nation. Here's a good example of how this provision is being invoked to contest a refusal by Canadian courts to grant a patent on a drug, as explained on the Public Citizen site:

Eli Lilly and Company has initiated formal proceedings under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to attack Canada's standards for granting drug patents, claiming that the denial of a medicine patent is an expropriation of its property rights granted by the agreement. The investor privileges provisions included in NAFTA and other U.S. "free trade" agreements (FTAs) empower private firms to directly challenge government policies before foreign tribunals comprised of three private-sector attorneys, claiming that the policies undermine their "expected future profits." Eli Lilly's move marks the first attempt by a patent-holding pharmaceutical corporation to use U.S. "trade" agreement investor privileges as a tool to push for greater monopoly patent protections, which increase the cost of medicines for consumers and governments.

The claim that denying a patent is somehow an "expropriation" of property is pretty extraordinary. Patents are intellectual monopolies that are granted by governments; Eli Lilly does not have such a monopoly in Canada unless the government there grants it, which it does by applying its well-established laws and rules. Here's the background to the current dispute:
Eli Lilly launched its NAFTA attack after Canadian courts invalidated Eli Lilly's monopoly patent rights for an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drug, having determined that the drug had failed to deliver the benefits the firm promised when obtaining the patent. However, in its formal notice of intent to take Canada to a NAFTA investor tribunal, Eli Lilly makes clear that it is not only challenging the invalidation of its particular patent, but Canada's entire legal doctrine for determining a medicine's "utility" and, thus, a patent's validity. While pushing for a patent standard that would raise medicine prices, Eli Lilly, the fifth-largest U.S. pharmaceutical corporation, is demanding $100 million from Canadian taxpayers as compensation for Canada's enforcement of its existing medicine patent standards.

Basically Eli Lilly failed to deliver its side of the bargain, since the drug doesn't work very well, so Canada refused to allow the company to retain a patent that was contingent on it being effective. What's worrying is that the drug company's present action is not just challenging that decision, but the whole approach that requires drugs to work well enough to deserve a patent -- not unreasonably.

The case will not be heard before any ordinary national or even international court, with all that this implies in terms of transparency and fairness, but by a very special kind of tribunal:

The tribunals are comprised of three private sector attorneys, unaccountable to any electorate, who rotate between serving as "judges" and bringing cases for corporations against governments. The tribunals operate behind closed doors, and there are no conflict of interest rules. The tribunalists are paid by the hour and governments are often ordered to pay for a share of tribunal costs even when cases are dismissed. There is no limit to the amount of money tribunals can order governments to pay corporations. There are very limited appeal rights.
The entire approach is clearly biased towards companies and against the national governments, so the following facts will come as no surprise:
Under U.S. FTAs and related deals, private investors have already pocketed over $3 billion in taxpayer money via investor-state cases, while more than $15 billion remains in pending claims.
However, bad as things are currently, they promise to get even worse if the TPP agreement is finalized in line with leaked versions:
Ironically, while Canada faces an investor-state challenge from Eli Lilly, the country has joined negotiations to establish the TPP, which would expand the investor-state system further. To date, Canada has paid more than $140 million to foreign investors after NAFTA investor-state attacks on energy, timber and toxics policies. Part of Eli Lilly's claim against Canada is that the invalidation of its patent constituted an expropriation of its "investment." NAFTA does not list patents in its definition of a protected "investment," although some analysts have long worried that the broad, vague NAFTA definition could be used to attack medicine patent policies. But in the TPP, the proposed Investment Chapter explicitly names "intellectual property rights" as a protected "investment."
That is, TPP aims to formalize precisely the argument that Eli Lilly is trying to make using some rather far-fetched legal logic, discussed at length in the Public Citizen post quoted above. Moreover, it seems highly likely that a similarly far-reaching investor-state section will be included in the new Transatlantic FTA (TAFTA), now being discussed more widely.
The central problem with these investor-state provisions is that they elevate companies to the level of entire countries. Secret, unaccountable and biased tribunals with unlimited powers then enable them to overturn democratic decisions and legislation passed to preserve things like public health or the environment, simply because they would reduce corporate profits. And yet few people are even aware that such investor-state provisions exist, despite their massive impact on the lives of millions. That's a hugely troubling combination for the future.

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