Canada needs to step up to the plate and deliver on a commitment to help provide affordable generic medicines to developing nations, advocates say.
“This should really be understood as a non-partisan issue,” says Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. “It’s unfortunate that the government has so far refused to join that consensus and support the bill.”
Elliott’s comments follow the Senate’s failure to pass bill C-393, which would have created efficiencies within Canada’s access to medicines regime. The law aimed to help move cheaper generic medications to people in poorer countries.
Developing nations and generic drug manufacturers have complained that the regime is unwieldy and say it’s unlikely they’ll use it until the government implements modifications. Only a single order of one AIDS drug has so far flowed to a country based on the regime’s provisions.
Necessary changes appeared to be a foregone conclusion when, on March 9, Parliament resoundingly passed bill C-393. The legislation provided for changes to the regime that were expected to open the door to delivering a meaningful volume of medicines to developing countries.
Despite widespread support from community and non-profit organizations and bipartisan backing in the House of Commons, the bill died on the order paper in the Senate when the federal election was called and Parliament dissolved on March 26.
Elliott accuses the government of “playing out the clock” until time ran out on bill C-393. He also suggests then-industry minister Tony Clement’s office deliberately circulated misleading information in an attempt to weaken support for the legislation. For example, there was a scathing memo from Clement’s office leaked to the press.
“There were all sorts of claims made in there that were simply not correct,” says Elliott.
Those erroneous claims included the suggestion that the bill would remove safeguards blocking the export of drugs lacking Health Canada safety certification.
There were also claims, despite conflicting evidence from experts, that the bill would prompt a breach of Canada’s World Trade Organization obligations under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.
In addition, critics raised fears that the bill would lead to the distribution of prescription drugs on the black market.
“There were basically a number of straw-man arguments being set up to sow confusion about what the bill would or would not do in an attempt basically to convince senators that this is not something that they should get behind,” says Elliott.
Despite the apparent opposition from within the federal Conservative government, Elliott believes the bill will resurface when Parliament reconvenes following its summer break. Still, he remains cautious about its likelihood of success.
“I think the chances are decent,” he says. “It did pass with a very solid majority in the House of Commons in the last Parliament [through] a 60-vote majority.
There was support by all parties then represented in the House of Commons, including 26 Conservative members of Parliament.”
Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, president of the Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, believes a reconstituted bill’s passage is contingent on a change of approach by the Senate.
She says organizations like hers and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network have secured support from several senators to move the issue forward.
“The role of the Senate is just to really make surethat the legislation has integrity,” says Kiddell-Monroe.
“But it’s not to overturn the will of the Canadian people. So I think if the Senate is very careful and understands its role properly, it will do the right thing and make sure that this piece of legislation passes.”
From a procedural standpoint, she remains confident that the changes to the regime will eventually go through.
Kiddell-Monroe also believes the legislation creates an opportunity for Canada to assert its leadership role within the international community. With Australia looking to create a law similar to Canada’s, she says passing amendments to the protocol could help that country create a more suitable regime of its own.
At the end of the day, Elliott says Canada has an obligation under international human rights treaties it has signed to take steps to help people in other nations realize the highest possible standards of health.
“That includes a duty of international assistance and co-operation under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,” says Elliott.
Canada and other WTO members have also signed onto a 2001 declaration of the trade organization’s general council in favour of interpreting and implementing the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights in a manner that supports countries in promoting public health.
Canada’s creation of the regime was presented as an attempt to follow through on that commitment.
“This is not a foreign concept,” says Elliott.
“Since the mid-1960s, Canada has, as a matter of law on the international stage, said, ‘Yes, we have obligations to co-operate with other countries,’ and this is one of the manifestations of that.”