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Conservatives remain opposed to cheap AIDS drug bill

'They're looking for any excuse': exasperated NDP

Brian Masse attends a rally in support of C-393 in 2010. Credit: Dale Smith

After an hour of debate, the future of Bill C-393 remains uncertain.

The NDP private member’s bill would ease restrictions on the production of generic drugs for export to poorer countries.

MPs proposed three amendments, two from the NDP and one from the Bloc Québécois. But the bill could be killed on procedural grounds because its original mover, Judy Wasylycia-Leis, is no longer an MP. To transfer the bill to a new MP would require a unanimous vote in the House.

Conservative MPs Mike Wallace and Kelly Block spoke to the bill and remain hostile. Wallace calls the bill unnecessary because of the prime minister’s maternal and child health goals outlined at the Muskoka G8 summit.

“They’re looking for any excuse they can possibly find,” says NDP industry critic Brian Masse, who is shepherding the bill for now.

Masse points out that significant concessions were made to the bill in 2010 “to be more palatable to what their criticisms were.”

The bill aims to fix Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR), which became law in 2004 but has only been used once.

Bloc MP Luc Malo wants to know why it hasn’t been used more often. Malo said the Bloc supports the two NDP amendments — to restore the one-licence solution and to expand the definition of pharmaceutical products in the wording of the bill. The Bloc wants C-393 to expire after four years, at which point it could be revived by cabinet, with the approval of the House and Senate.

“I have the impression that in four years we’ll have other examples to see if an amended CAMR is working,” Malo says.

For Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the sunset clause would end up merely punishing success. To date, generic manufacturer Apotex has committed to creating a formulation of Apo-Triavir, a pediatric AIDS drug, if CAMR is amended to include a “one-licence solution.”

“If that is the case, then there is even less reason to have in place a clause that means it will all come to a halt, unless cabinet adopts a resolution which is then also passed by the House and the Senate,” Elliott says.

Elliott also takes issue with Wallace’s assertion that CAMR should be treated as a separate issue from the maternal and child health goals, calling it a false dichotomy.

“They go hand-in-hand, and in fact, there’s a real synergy there,” Elliott says. “If you make medicines more affordable, how do you think you get them out to people? You get them out through primary healthcare systems, and when there is that demand for medicines, because it’s actually within the realm of the possible because the prices are affordable, then you actually see the pressure to actually build up primary healthcare systems where they’re not strong enough.”

The Liberal speaker to the bill, MP Joyce Murray, spoke about how she was born in South Africa, and during return visits she has seen the devastation of the AIDS crisis there. Murray pointed out that treatment equals prevention, something that has not been widely discussed over the course of debate on the bill.

“To me that’s equally important because it’s not just people who currently have AIDS, it’s people who can be prevented from having AIDS, if there’s proper, timely, thorough treatment,” Murray says.

Asked about divisions within the Liberal party — given that the Liberal industry critic Marc Garneau has been hostile to the bill and helped to gut the one-licence solution from the bill during committee — Murray remained diplomatic.

“Reasonable people disagree on how to accomplish a goal that we may agree on. So, fundamentally Liberals are in support of helping people with AIDS and with no access to affordable medicines.”

The issue of sponsorship of the bill will likely be negotiated between House leaders of the various parties on Feb 1. Given that opposition has been voiced to Masse’s assuming sponsorship, because he already tabled a private member’s bill in the current parliament, the NDP have offered to transfer sponsorship to Ottawa MP Paul Dewar instead.

“Every time they’ve come up with an excuse, we’ve offered a solution, so we’ll see very shortly whether or not that’s something they’ll accept,” Masse says.