VANCOUVER—A recent poll suggests Canadians care deeply about making affordable medicines available to the sick and ailing in developing countries. But carrying that out has been easier said than done, despite a bill passed in 2004 that received all-party support.
The Jean Chrétien Pledge to Africa Act was intended to facilitate exports of lower-priced, generic medicines to treat diseases such as AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis in developing countries.
But in the five years since it passed, only one country—Rwanda—has received just one shipment of generic medicine.
Now, two pieces of legislation, one before the House and one in the Senate, aim to reform Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR) in order to cut down on red tape and put a simpler process in place.
Under the Pledge to Africa Act, generic drug companies have to apply for a new licence for each order for each country, making the process slow and unwieldy, explains Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.
He says that by the time the legislation was passed, it had become “compromised and watered-down and gummed-up as a result of the lobbying of the brand-name pharmaceutical industry.”
“The process for actually getting those licenses so that those medicines could be exported became so riddled with hurdles and inefficiency that it was of little appeal or little usability to both developing countries and to the generic manufacturers in Canada who are the potential manufacturers and suppliers of those medicines.”
The two bills to amend CAMR—both of which are virtually identical—are S-232 which is currently being considered by a Senate committee, and C-393 introduced on May 25 to the House of Commons.
Bill C-393, which was read a second time on Wednesday and sent to committee, would replace the current system with one in which generic drug companies would need to obtain only one licence, authorizing them to export to any of the eligible developing countries that wish to purchase the medicine.
One of the biggest supporters of amending CAMR is the Grandmother to Grandmother Campaign, a grassroots network of some 220 grandmothers across the country who are working to mobilize support for grandmothers in Africa.
In March, the group presented to the House of Commons over 32,000 signatures from Canadians who support reforming CAMR in order to allow affordable medicines get out the door to developing countries more easily.
According to a recent national poll conducted for HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Canadian Crossroads International, and UNICEF Canada, eight in 10 Canadians (80 percent) said that they supported the legislative changes to CAMR, with 9 percent opposing.
“Canadians have shown over and over again over the years that they actually support this,” says Elliott, adding that if implemented, the new process would come at no cost to the taxpayer.
“It would be a much simpler, cost effective kind of system and I think that would dramatically increase the prospects that it will be seen as something developing countries and generic manufacturers can use.”
A big stumbling block for the pharmaceutical companies is that If generic medicines were made available to developing countries on a large scale, they would lose their monopolies in those countries. However, they would gain by receiving royalty payments on sales of generic medicines that they would not otherwise make, says Elliott.
“So there is in fact some potential benefit to the brand name companies in all of this, but I think they are so hung-up on the idea that they must protect their patent monopolies on those medicines at all costs—even in poor countries where they make very little money.”
On Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, 59 VIPs including former Prime Minister Paul Martin signed a letter calling for changes to CAMR.