Like the millions of patent applications before it, the one filed in Gatineau, Que., by the Canadian subsidiary of U.S. drug giant Purdue Pharma promised remarkable things. The company’s researchers had “surprisingly” discovered a new way to treat pain. Purdue’s innovative pill would substantially improve the “efficiency and quality of pain management,” because it didn’t need to be taken as often as other medications. Most importantly, it was safer. In a section of the application called “Summary of the Invention,” where the benefits of the innovation are recorded, Purdue said its new pill could treat pain “without unacceptable side effects.” The drug was awarded Canadian Patent No. 2,098,738. Its official title in the paperwork was listed as: controlled release oxycodone compositions. But Purdue called it OxyContin.
It would go on to be a blockbuster drug-the long promising prescription painkiller in Canada for more than a decade and one of the most lucrative pharmaceutical invention to hit the market. In fact, the profit from OxyContin were massive and growing every year. In Canada and United States, where the drugs was also patented. Seeing this trend, other Canadian drugmakers wanted a piece of those profits and a series of patent wars broke out. Unwiling to wait the standard 20Years for the patent to expire in 2012, atleast three pharmaceutical maufacturers went to federal court starting in 2005, seeking to produce their own version of OxyContin. In thousands of pages court filing detailing those cases, which had not been made public until now, Patent 2,098,738 soon become shortened to the more manageable Patent”738″which become a shortform of one of the biggest backroom battles in Canadian pharmaceutical history, though few outside the buisness knew it was going on.
OxyContin wasn’t merely a commercial success because it was effective at killing pain – it was also highly addictive. Patients who were prescribed the seemingly benign pills for everyday conditions, such as back pain, were becoming hopelessly dependent upon them, unable to break their habit and requiring stronger and stronger doses as time went on. Increasingly, people were dying. Canada’s opioid epidemic, which traces its roots back to the introduction of OxyContin and Patent ‘738, has now killed thousands.
Ranbaxy Pharmaceuticals Canada Inc. accused Purdue of “material misrepresentation,” alleging that Purdue knew from its own clinical research that the claims listed in Patent ‘738, which said OxyContin was safer and more effective than other prescription painkillers, could not be supported. “Such statements were added intentionally to mislead the Patent Office into believing that an invention existed,” Ranbaxy said.
Purdue disputed these allegations, and others, even as further lawsuits insisted the drug was far more addictive than its creator suggested. But the attacks on Patent ‘738 weren’t designed to warn the public about problems with OxyContin. Instead, their purpose was to have the courts declare the patent invalid, so that other companies could move in and manufacture their own versions of the enormously profitable pill. In doing so, they hoped to claim some of the billions of dollars being made from controlled-release oxycodone.
This is the story of how Patent ‘738 sparked the opioid crisis in Canada, with OxyContin serving as the gateway to an epidemic of addiction that has since spread to other, more hazardous substances such as fentanyl. It has left many dead, and many more ravaged by the drug and its implications. It is also a tale of how marketing – not necessarily sound medicine – helped turn Patent ‘738 into one of the most profitable drugs the industry has seen in recent memory, and how careful Purdue has been to protect that empire, even as the damage spread. In 2014, Purdue Canada’s CEO acknowledged Canada had a problem with overprescribing opioids.