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CAMR at Industry Committee – marathon of faint hope

Apparently deciding to get it out of the way in one shot, the Commons industry committee decided to hold the remainder of its hearings on the Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR) reform bill in one fell swoop – four-and-a-half hours of hearings, divided into three groups. It made for a very long morning.

In many ways, it was the first session that was the most dramatic. Amir Attaran, a professor from the University of Ottawa, declared that CAMR would do nothing and could in fact be harmful, because Canadian generic drugs were simply too expensive. Gowlings partner Richard Dearden insisted that these CAMR reforms would run Canada afoul of the WTO treaties and obligations. This was contradicted by Frederick Abbott, an international laws professor from Florida, who is an expert in these laws.

But above all, Attaran kept pushing buttons. His favoured prop was a box of counterfeit Malaria medication, but he set off other panellists when he called Apotex’s single use of the existing CAMR legislation as a “stunt.” This had Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, Chair of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines itching to correct the record. Attaran’s testimony also neglected the fact that Apotex competitively priced their HIV medications, and he misrepresented their experiences (which some of us heard in the Senate hearings last year).

That’s not to say that there wasn’t some drama in the second session. The Grandmothers to Grandmothers gave their testimony, along with Doctors Without Borders, and the brand-name drug companies. Apotex’s representative wasn’t able to make it, and despite the fact that they have testimony on the record from the Senate hearings last year, I have my doubts that any MP read through it.

Questions on the timeline of Apotex’ experience in getting the licenses from the patent drug companies were met with obfuscation in the fact that it wasn’t reflective of the total CAMR process (and yes, Apotex submitted a full timeline to the Senate committee if anyone bothered to read it), and when it was asked why the patent drug companies thought that CAMR-type legislation had never been accessed in any of the other countries where it’s law, Grant Perry, the Vice-President of GlaxoSmithKline Canada actually suggested that it was perhaps because of a lack of need – a gasp went up around the room.

Linda Williams of the Grandmothers campaign also let it be known that she was fully aware of the rumours that the government plans to kill the bill on a technical motion – it must receive unanimous consent when it returns to the House, for Brian Masse to assume authorship of the bill in lieu of the recently retired Judy Wasylycia-Leis, and that they would not stand for it.

The final session was less dramatic, but was fraught with difficulty as four witnesses were appearing by teleconference from Seattle, Swansea, Geneva, and Cape Town – and there were difficulties with some. And yet, amidst all this testimony about WTO mechanisms, and the experience of CAMR’s use in Rwanda and on-the-ground experience of the need for these drugs in sub-Saharan Africa, Conservative Dave Van Kestern still thought it was a fine idea to run out the clock by giving an ode to the Federal Accountability Act as a way of deflecting notions that the pharmaceutical companies were trying to influence the government. Seriously.

If I may editorialise for a moment, sitting through this marathon session showcased some of the failings of the committee system, as you had, for example, seven witnesses, four of them by videoconference, and a little over an hour to try and hear from each of them and ask questions. It was a gong show, and there were witnesses whose time was wasted, where they sat on the other end of the screen for an hour-and-a-half, having given an opening statement and nothing else. In a bid to study this bill in a mere three days, the committee short-changed all of the witnesses. There were also far too many detours into the larger issues of foreign aid and health delivery systems in developing countries, which distracted from the point of the bill, which was that this was a technical amendment to patent legislation that allowed for access to the market by generic drug companies, and that generic competition was intended to drive prices down. Everything else became a distraction, but the distraction is what took up most of the time and attention.

The bill goes to clause-by-clause consideration on Thursday.

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