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Opinion by Amanda Vickers
Dr Thomas Owen’s talk the other week was an eye-opener for me. Dr Owen, lecturer in communication and media studies at Auckland University of Technology, spoke about his recently published book “Patents, Pills and the Press”. He discussed how the media and pharmaceutical corporations play a role in international trade deals.
Dr Owen said that pharmaceutical corporations have fast realised that the way to secure maximum profit is through extending the patents their inventions already had. This is far more profitable than from new research and development (R&D) profits from new drugs.
Extending medical patents, means higher costs of medicines for us.With any patent, if protections are too weak then there will be insufficient financial incentive for further R&D. However, if it’s too strong there will be artificial scarcity, and insufficient public benefit from the invention. The question is whether a healthy balance is achieved. The history, Dr Owen said, is that “from the mid-20th century, patents were negotiated at the UN (through World Intellectual Property Organisation, or WIPO), but Big Pharma companies lobbied to move them into trade agreements — and that is how the WTO was formed in 1995. That was the “linkage bargaining” moment, where patent protections were inserted into trade agreements, and could thus then be negotiated in exchange for concessions on agriculture, textiles, etc. (This gave rich countries more power to get what they wanted — which was stronger patent protections). Another major forum shift was the move from the WTO to multiple free trade agreements, of which the Trans-Pacific-Partnership-Agreement (TPPA) is but one. This has occurred since 2001 and continues today.”
What I really wanted to understand though was how those corporations pulled this off. For me, this is a sell out. Where is the logic that a sovereign nation, negotiating for the benefit of its own people, includes corporate privilege in such a negotiation? Where did the common sense, democracy, accountability and morality go? Dr Owen said it was not a simple answer, and the complexity of it is perhaps part of its genius.
He believes it came about through a complex combination of corporations influencing government, international business lobbying resources, governmental contacts and international business networks all on behalf of the corporations themselves. “mainstream media disproportionately promotes the interest of.. elites”
In terms of the media, it also becomes harder for journalists to analyse and report on these types of agreements because there are so many and they are so varied.
Dr Owen said “it is a routine finding in media research that mainstream media … around the world (and here in NZ) are disproportionately corporate controlled, and that they disproportionately promote the interests of political and economic elites while tending to delegitimise protest campaigns, activism, and civil society activities.” He said this is an orthodox media studies insight.
Regardless of the complexities of how this comes about the end result is that trade negotiations have been a very effective battle ground for corporations’ patents’ interests. This has recently culminated in the likes of the TPPA. Dr Owen is steadfast that “patents equal power” and he believes corporations will have more power as a result of the TPPA.Dr Owen’s focus was on pharmaceuticals, however, he said this general scenario is seen across many other industries.
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