3 min

AIDS drug bill gets some star power

Today's arrival of Juno-winning artist K’naan on Parliament Hill woke up the mainstream media to tonight’s vote on Bill C-393, which would reform Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime.

Where once yours truly was the only reporter in the room, countless others rushed to cover this morning’s press conference on the importance of passing this bill. This was obviously due to K’naan’s appearance, even though he was joined by Stephen Lewis, Dr James Orbinski from Dignitas International and Fanta Ongoiba of Africans in Partnership Against AIDS (APAA).

Richard Elliott of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network helmed the press conference, and a few interesting facts were laid out.

“The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which provides most of the money, has suffered setbacks in its efforts at replenishment,” Lewis warned. “The presidential initiative in the United States called PEPFAR is flat-lining and reducing its moneys. There are drug stock-outs and inadequate medication appearing everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, from Uganda to Zambia and beyond, and in addition to that, there is a trade agreement being negotiated between the European Union and India, which will result in extended patent protection for brand-name drugs in India, thereby diminishing the availability of the generics from India, which are at the moment supporting up to 90 percent of the treatment in sub-Saharan African countries.”

Orbinski spoke of returning from Malawi, where Dignitas International has a number of pediatric HIV clinics that are in need of the pediatric formulation of medicines. Orbinski pointed out that such a formulation of a combination treatment called Apotriovir has been promised by a Canadian generic-drug manufacturer if C-393 passes.

Lewis says this bill will have a direct bearing on Canada’s reputation in the world. “If this bill had passed a year or two ago, as it is drafted today, I think we’d probably be on the [United Nations] Security Council. There would be so much honour attached to doing this throughout the developing world that it would have made a great difference in Canada’s reputation, and I think it will help our reputation greatly if it is passed. If it isn’t passed, it will be another international blow to our integrity.”

And then there is the issue of star power.

“Although sometimes I’ve been critical about how some charity works, this is a moment of justice,” K’naan said, noting this is the first time he’s thrown his support behind a piece of legislation.

“If I look at the fortunes I get, it compels me to do something,” K’naan says. “If I could do it with a lyric, if I could take a plane trip to come here and stand beside people who are experts in the field, to say something and be helpful…"

“I just feel that when we’re in a place of contentment and safety and have this sense of security, what happens to us is we become complacent and we forget the things that makes us human.”

Tonight’s vote has brought out some vocal critics of the bill. Liberal Keith Martin sent out an op-ed that says the bill is largely unnecessary for two reasons: 98.6 percent of the listed drugs are already off-patent, which Elliott dismissed as being “simplistic and static and misleading” because the majority of AIDS drugs are still on-patent; and new medicines that are developed to address drug resistance will be on-patent.

As well, Blogging Tories founder Stephen Taylor sent out talking points over Twitter saying “Generics and flattening of drug development profit motive will put more lives [at] risk in the future,” “Listen to economists[and] scientists. Removing incentives for R&D is disastrous,” and “Life-saving drugs exist [because] of implied covenant that those that develop them can profit [from] their R&D. Ruining this [means] no life-saving drugs.”

Taylor’s talking points ignore some important facts: generic manufacturers under CAMR pay royalties to the patent-holders; generic combination therapies can create one-tablet solutions for drugs that are under competing brand-name patents; and the countries affected by CAMR make up less than two percent of the brand-name pharmaceutical markets.

While Elliott says the vote will be close, he hopes that the bill will pass and move immediately to the Senate.
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