Life sciences and the commodification of everything

It was once the case that the term “life sciences” meant the scientific study of living organisms. It meant biology, zoology, ecology, and even bio-ethics. In what must have been a public relations re-branding, “life sciences” has now adopted an almost entirely technological, commercial focus on genetically-modified products and pharmaceuticals.

It is in this sense that “life sciences” has become a hot commodity. While the Harper Conservatives seem allergic to any kind of science to monitor and expand our knowledge of life on earth—whether fresh water ecosystems (through the killing of federal support for the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area), the nature of polar atmospheric chemistry in terms of ozone and greenhouse gases (through the closing of the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory), the build up of toxic chemicals in marine mammals (shutting down the DFO marine contaminants program), to name a few, pressing for the commercial advantage of the global pharmaceutical industry is a “life science” Mr. Harper likes.

When contemplating the proposed, and now fast-tracked, Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA), many Canadians are concerned with the reality that the agreement will assist the pharmaceutical industry in retaining patent protection longer, undercutting generic drugs and driving up prices for critical medicines.

Trade agreements still masquerade as though they were about trade. Little wonder. They still get away with being described as “trade agreements.”   The term “trade agreement” should be reserved for agreements, like the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT); one of the last agreements actually about trade in goods. Ever since the Uruguay Round of the GATT, leading to the creation of the World Trade Organization, agreements have shifted from the focus on elimination of tariffs and other barriers to trade in goods, to the greater economic integration of national economies in the interest of corporate profits. And the shifting of balance away from national policies designed to improve the health of a domestic economy to assisting transnational corporations in deriving ever-higher profits is well demonstrated in the CETA provisions to aid Big Pharma.

While Canadians bemoan the “health-care crisis,” the single fastest rising component of health care is the cost of pharmaceutical drugs. The costs are “justified” by claims that the pharmaceutical industry invests an enormous amount in research that can only be captured through drug prices that far exceed the actual cost of production of the drugs in question. That allegation is false. Recent studies from around the world have debunked this claim. (Light, et al., “Will lower drug prices jeopardize drug research: a policy fact sheet,” American Journal of Bioethics, 2004.)

Meanwhile, the regulation of pharmaceutical products is failing Canadians. The excellent work by the Therapeutics Initiative at University of British Columbia is well worth replicating across Canada ( Using an objective, evidence-based approach, the Therapeutics Initiative (TI) has saved lives and dollars by advising the B.C. government of drugs, approved by Health Canada, which, in their assessment, posed more risks than benefits. Due to the TI assessment, British Columbia did not approve Vioxx or cholinesterase inhibitors for Alzheimer’s patients. In fact, the TI approach was so successful that it was targeted by Big Pharma and pressure was brought to bear on the B.C. government to cease its funding.

This is not the time to abandon scientific rigour when it comes to pharmaceuticals. It is one of the largest corporate profit-centres on the planet, and its ethics are not squeaky clean. GlaxoSmithKline agreed in July to plead guilty to fraud and to pay $3-billion in the United States for illegal promotion of Paxil in what is the largest settlement ever with Big Pharma.

Giving the pharmaceutical industry more power to drive up drug costs faster is not in the public interest—not in Canada and not in Europe. The fact that we are in the midst of negotiations operating on the assumption that this is a worthy policy goal is evidence of just how unhinged the public good has become from public policy.

While discussing life sciences, we need to bring to bear actual evidence-based science in the interest of protecting life. What a novel approach.

Elizabeth May is the Leader of the Green Party of Canada and Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands.
Originally printed in the Hill Times.