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Op-ed: University of Toronto should end partnerships with for-profit pharmaceutical companies

We must step away from public-private partnerships
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

On February 24, the University of Toronto announced that it will partner with the price-fixing and profiteering pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, with each investing $20 million to launch the Novo Nordisk Centre for Healthy Populations. The mission of this joint venture? The defeat of diabetes, obesity, and other chronic conditions.  

In 1921, a team of Frederick Banting, Charles Best, James Collip, and John Macleod successfully purified insulin, which immediately improved the conditions and saved the lives of patients with diabetes. The comparison of this new public-private partnership of U of T with Novo Nordisk to the work of University of Toronto scientists 100 years ago is egregious and borders on appropriation. 

The scientists who discovered insulin sold their shares of the insulin patent to the University of Toronto for only $1 to ensure all people with diabetes would be able to afford the life-saving treatment. The University of Toronto’s Connaught Labs itself produced and distributed the drug at this cost in Canada for decades but needed to license the drug to pharmaceutical companies for production abroad. Canadians benefited from affordable Toronto-produced insulin until the Brian Mulroney Progressive-Conservative government privatized the Connaught Labs in 1986. 

From then on, a small number of for-profit pharmaceutical corporations dominated the market and began inflating prices to line their pockets. Of the major players in the insulin ‘market’ today, two received licenses from the University of Toronto, including Eli Lilly in the United States and Novo Nordisk in Scandinavia.   

No longer controlled by the public, the price of insulin soared. Becoming less and less affordable, uninsured Americans now die while rationing insulin and thousands of people flock to GoFundMe in desperate bids for life. In 2017, people with diabetes sued the three major insulin producers — Eli Lilly, Sanofi, which purchased the Connaught Labs, and Novo Nordisk — for price fixing. In 2019, Novo Nordisk recorded nearly $8 billion in profit off a required-for-life treatment at the expense of individuals. This is who the University of Toronto welcomes with open arms.  

We need public ownership over the publicly-funded research that takes place at the University of Toronto. How many lives would be saved if insulin was never licensed to for-profit institutions? Instead, U of T President Meric Gertler and the University of Toronto Governing Council, led by Chancellor and current Bank of Montreal executive Rose Patten, unilaterally entered U of T researchers into a partnership with big pharma. 

Many details remain sparse. Who will control the intellectual property generated by the collaboration? How do various stakeholders participate meaningfully in the goal of defeating diabetes and obesity? Critically, which solutions will remain invisible to this partnership of academia with business? 

In most instances, for-profit interests control the intellectual property generated by public-private partnerships. The public is currently seeing this with the Moderna-NIH and the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines. Public scientists, public funding, private profits! 

Just like COVID-19, the solution to Type II diabetes and obesity is at the community level. Learning from the example set by Big Tobacco, the sugar lobby covered up the connection between Type II diabetes and a high-sugar diet. Food manufacturers made billions by stuffing their products with refined sugars and advertising directly to children. The economic and time-cost of higher nutritional value eating is inaccessible to many overworked and underpaid people, yet now, U of T and Novo Nordisk together envision a pharmaceutical path forward.

Novo Nordisk seems eager to capitalize on the ‘obesity market’ and already has several drugs on the market to do just that, at the detriment of its patients’ well-being and neglectful of community-based solutions. Why not invest this $20 million into our communities, to enhance access to culturally-safe and nutritious food? The nearly $8 billion in profits Novo Nordisk celebrated in 2019 may be a clue — capitalism baked Type II diabetes into the fabric of our society, and no public-private partnership can address that root cause.  

Public-private partnerships only exist to subsidize research and work that is not profitable enough or is too risky for the shareholders of private corporations. And our public institutions, corporatized following years of austerity, are happy to play the role of patron to the already mega-wealthy. We do not need Novo Nordisk or any for-profit corporation. 

Their scientists are trained at our universities and colleges. They develop drugs based on the fundamental research conducted at universities and other public-sector institutes. The Connaught Labs operated successfully for many years and provided essential medicines to the public at affordable costs. We need to return to this model and expand on it!  

This is why we, Students Mobilizing Against Systemic Hardship (SMASH), demand the following:

  1. An end to all public-private partnerships at the University of Toronto,
  2. Public control over all research conducted at the University of Toronto,
  3. Democratic control by students, workers, and community members over the University of Toronto, 
  4. Increased public funding for research into diabetes and other chronic conditions,
  5. Expropriation and democratization of all for-profit pharmaceutical companies in Canada,
  6. Nationalization and democratization of food production in Canada,
  7. Increased funding for basic and translation research,
  8. Guaranteed access to nutritious food for all people living in Canada,
  9. Guaranteed access to public parks and athletic centers for all people living in Canada, and
  10.  A living wage for all!

Daniel Tarade is a sixth-year PhD student at the Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology. Siobhan O’Brien is a fourth-year PhD student in biochemistry. They are both co-founders of SMASH.