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In The Field: Grant Robertson

"The boxes of long-forgotten files, including transcripts and statements of claim dating back to the early 1990s, related to a series of patent fights between Purdue and some of Canada’s biggest drug companies. "

Grant Robertson explains how he and colleague Karen Howlett teamed up to tell their award-winning story.


 

Sometimes old and long-forgotten documents can yield surprising new insights. 

That was the case in Patent ’738: How a single pill sparked Canada’s deadly opioid crisis and ignited one of the biggest pharmaceutical battles in the country’s history. The story, an investigation by colleague Karen Howlett and I, was an effort to look back forensically at how the opioid epidemic began, and eventually metastasized into the addiction crisis Canada now faces. 

Many news organizations have exposed the deadly toll the opioid epidemic is taking on their communities, with impressive work coming from all corners of the country, and across the United States. But the questions that troubled Karen and I from the outset of the reporting were simple ones about the origin of the problem: How did we get here? How was this allowed to happen?

To find the answers, we went back into the Canadian court files related to Purdue Pharma, the company that invented OxyContin, an opioid pill once said to be safer than any that had come before it.

While reporting on another story related to the opioid crisis, I came across a trove of files inside the federal court archives that appeared to tell an interesting story. The boxes of long-forgotten files, including transcripts and statements of claim dating back to the early 1990s, related to a series of patent fights between Purdue and some of Canada’s biggest drug companies. 

The disputes were over Canadian Patent #2,098,738, which detailed the invention of a controlled release oxycodone composition said to be capable of something no drug of its kind had ever achieved before: it would harness the painkilling ability of opiates, but “without unacceptable side effects” that made them so infamous – addiction and withdrawal.

Admittedly, patent court documents aren’t usually very exciting. They tend to be tedious and overly technical. But by going back to these old files and looking at them in a different context, a new and startling picture began to emerge that became the crux of our story. These court documents came through the Federal Court in Toronto. I had to order them from the archives because they had long been shipped off to the warehouse where old files are kept. So, it took a little longer for them to arrive than usual.

They showed that between 1992 and the early 2000s, as OxyContin became a multibillion-dollar blockbuster drug, numerous lawsuits were launched against Purdue by rival drug companies, in an attempt to have the patent struck down.

Several of Purdue’s biggest rivals argued the patent was invalid and fraudulent because it claimed that OxyContin wasn’t addictive, which they said was demonstrably false. But this wasn’t a warning being sounded for the public good. Rather, the reason these companies wanted the patent declared invalid was so that they could gain entry to the market and manufacture generic versions of the highly profitable pill themselves.

The revelation that OxyContin is deceptively addictive was not earth-shattering. By now, the risks of the drug are well documented, including the deaths it has been linked to, and the tales of escalating drug addiction that have ensued, with people gravitating to fentanyl and other drugs as regulators clamped down on OxyContin.

 But looking back on these old patent files with new context, the court battles revealed something important: Long before the public, the medical community and governments ever came to terms with how addictive OxyContin was, the drug industry knew all about its dangers. 

The battle over Patent ’738, waged so that drug companies could win the right to profit off the drug themselves, played out far from the public eye, as did the eventual settlement by the companies, which helped carve up the market for generic versions of the pill upon the patent’s expiry.

At the same time this aspect of the story came to light, Karen had been investigating the tactics used by Purdue to convince Canadian doctors to prescribe OxyContin, promoting the drug in advertisements in medical journals that compared its risks and utility to over-the-counter painkillers such as acetaminophen, and offering incentives for physicians to give it freely to patients for daily use. As more doctors prescribed it, the profits grew, but the addictions mounted. Eventually, Purdue pulled OxyContin from the market in Canada once the patent expired in 2012. As generic pills entered the market, organized crime also filled the void with more powerful bootleg versions of the pill, which has led to a sharp spike in overdose deaths.

The story faced many challenges, not the least of which was the prospect of legal threats from the drug industry and Purdue. This hung like a cloud over several important sources connected to the story.

One of the key lessons from putting the article together was figuring out how to tell the narrative when so many of the sources would no longer speak. Purdue would not answer questions about the drug, and many sources – fearing legal reprisals from the company – had been silenced.

But just as the old patent documents provided a new way to tell the history behind OxyContin’s dangers, there were other ways to give voices to the story. A variety of documents helped piece together the conversation – from court affidavits filed by doctors in disputes with the company, to transcripts from House of Commons hearings, to the company’s own marketing materials and Adverse Reaction Reports submitted to Health Canada by Purdue, which were obtained through an access to information request.

The result was a story that connected the dots from the early days of the drug to the addiction crisis of today. 

Before Patent ’738, the market for opioids was small. But since the drug was unleashed, the resulting crisis has only grown – leading to more powerful opioids such as illicit fentanyl and carfentanil. But by delving into these old, forgotten court filings, it became possible to stitch together a clearer picture of how it all began.


 

Grant Robertson is an award-winning investigative journalist who joined The Globe and Mail in 2005, from the Calgary Herald.

He is the winner of five National Newspaper Awards; including business reporting (2004, 2014), sports writing (2011), explanatory writing (2011), and short feature writing (2013).

He is a three-time finalist for the Michener Award, presented by the Governor General for meritorious public service journalism, including a 2008 investigation into Canada’s 911 emergency response system, and a 2013 probe into the deadly rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic. Quebec. 


 The CAJ's In The Field series invites leading Canadian journalists to share the stories behind the making of their award-winning works. 

Have a journalist in mind that you'd like us to feature? Tell us: admin@caj.ca!

 

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