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Canada Capitulates: Supreme Court Throws Away Government's Great Pharma Patent Victory


Techdirt readers will probably recall a long-running saga involving corporate sovereignty, $500 million, the US pharma company Eli Lilly, and drug patents. In its claim against the Canadian government, made using NAFTA's Chapter 11, Eli Lilly insisted it should have been given some drug patents, despite Canada's courts finding that they had not met the requirements for patentability -- specifically that there was no evidence that the drugs in question provided the benefits in the patent. Eli Lilly said that Canada was being unreasonable in setting a slightly higher bar than other countries by demanding that a patented drug should actually do something useful. As Mike reported back in March, even the lawyers that made up the corporate sovereignty tribunal hearing this case agreed that Canada was within its rights to take this view. They not only dismissed the claim, but ordered Eli Lilly to pay Canada's legal fees.

This was a huge win for Canada in particular, and governments in general. At the time, it all felt a little too good to be true. And now seems it was: as infojustice.org reports, the Supreme Court of Canada has just overturned decades of precedent -- and implicitly the Eli Lilly ruling -- by making it easier for Big Pharma to gain patents on medicines that don't really work:

This reversal in AstraZeneca Canada Inc. v. Apotex, Inc. is particularly disconcerting because Canada had just won an investor-state arbitration award in the long awaited Eli Lilly v. Canada case upholding its more stringent promise/utility doctrine that had been used successfully to overturn two dozen secondary patents, particularly those claiming new uses of known medicines, where patent claimants failed to present evidence in support of the prediction of therapeutic benefit promised in their patent applications.

Thus Canada's Supreme Court has inexplicably thrown away the government's earlier victory, and undermined the country's more rigorous approach to granting pharma patents. Writing for infojustice.org, Brook K. Baker believes this stunning capitulation is a result of unremitting bullying from the US:

Canada had been under intense pressure from the US, which had placed Canada on its Special 301 Watch List for five years threatening that the promise/utility doctrine unreasonably harmed Big Pharma in the US and from the pharmaceutical industry itself which claimed that the doctrine violated global patentability criteria. President Trump's hardball campaign promise to rewrite or leave the North American Free Trade Agreement because of its failure to adequately protect US intellectual property interests may also have played a role. Likewise, President Trump's more recent assertions that US payers are unreasonably subsidizing biomedical research and development because other countries, like Canada, are paying lower prices for innovator medicines than insurers and other payers in the US may also have increased pressure on the Court.

It's really sad to see the Canadian court kowtowing like this, undermining its own independence and moral authority in the process. Weaker patents will lead to the Canadian taxpayer paying higher prices for less-effective drugs. Worst of all, the Big Pharma bullies, aided and abetted by a newly-aggressive US government indifferent to other countries' health problems, will be encouraged to push for even more patent protection all around the world. That will lead not just to higher prices, but to more suffering and avoidable deaths, as crucial medicines become unaffordable for poorer patients.

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