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Canada-EU free trade negotiations come down to cheap drugs

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(MONTREAL) - A proposal to extend drug patents in Canada as part of a free trade pact being negotiated with the European Union provoked a backlash this week over fears it would push up health care costs.

Opposition MP Don Davies on Tuesday pressed the government about whether it will extend drug patents from 20 to 22 years, "making prescription drugs more expensive (in Canada) by keeping generic drugs off the market for longer."

"Will the minister (of trade) come clean and tell us if he plans to cave in to European drug companies?" he said.

Trade Minister Ed Fast replied, as EU trade negotiators arrived in Ottawa for an umpteenth round of talks, "We will only sign an agreement that is in the best interests of Canadians."

Extending drug patents is supported by the European Union, but has been denounced by the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Health Coalition, which urged Ottawa to take drug issues off the negotiating table.

The two non-governmental agencies released a poll conducted by Ipsos Reid that shows high support for a Canada-EU free trade deal were it not for the issue of pharmaceutical drug costs. It said 69 percent of Canadians opposed to a deal that would lengthen patent protections for brand name drugs.

The agencies also cited a 2011 University of Toronto study that found lengthening patent terms for drugs in Canada would increase the cost of public and private drug plans in Canada by at least Can$2.8 billion. The extra costs come from delaying the introduction of cheaper generic drugs by 3.5 years.

"It is particularly offensive that (pharmaceutical companies) want to add two years of protection to recoup time (for clinical trials and review)," said Mike McBane, spokesman for the Canadian Health Coalition. "But then, when a generic comes out, they (want the right to) take it to court, only in Canada, not in Europe, to further delay (competition).

"They'll lose in court, but they gain time," he explained.

An association representing pharmaceutical companies with operations in Canada countered critics' claims with its own survey by Nanos Research, which found that more than 76 percent of Canadians agree that Canada's intellectual property rights (including drug patents) should match or surpass those of Canada's trading partners.

Declan Hamill, vice president of Rx&D, which represents 50 pharmaceutical companies that spend Can$1 billion annually on research and development in Canada, told AFP that the University of Toronto study was financed by generic drug companies and that the figure used (Can$2.8 billion) is inflated.

Canada-EU free trade negotiations, now in their third year, are expected to wrap up by year's end.

EU trade relations with Canada

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