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Groups rally on the Hill to encourage passage of AIDS drugs bill

'We have an opportunity... to think beyond our borders,' says activist

Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, at the Sept 29 CAMR rally. Credit: Dale Smith photo

Groups gathered on a grey Wednesday before Parliament Hill to encourage MPs to pass a bill that would make it easier for generic drug companies to make AIDS drugs affordable for the developing world. Bill C-393, which would reform Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime, is ready to be debated before the Commons industry committee.

“We’re trying to make sure that they hear loud and clear that this is something that they really need to deal with, because they have certain timelines that they need to deal with bills in, and time is ticking on this one,” says Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

Groups including RESULTS Canada, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), the Grandmothers-to-Grandmothers Campaign and the Raging Grannies all spoke to the need to pass C-393.

“We have an opportunity as well as a responsibility that if we can in any way assist in the access-to-medicines crisis, to think beyond our borders,” says UAEM’s Aria Ahmad.

NDP industry critic Brian Massey, who attended the rally, is assuming responsibility for C-393 after its original sponsor, Judy Wasylycia-Leis, resigned her seat to run for mayor of Winnipeg.

“I’ve three times before taken a run at changing this legislation, dating back to 2003, when it was first introduced,” Massey says. “It became a natural progression to take it over, and especially as I’m industry critic.”

Massey says the committee will have several options when it comes to holding hearings on the bill, but that they would likely start fresh rather than rely on testimony made before the Senate’s Banking, Trade and Commerce committee when a nearly identical Senate bill was debated there last year.

That bill died upon prorogation, and per Senate rules was not revived in the new session. Its sponsor, Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs, decided to wait for C-393 to clear the Commons instead.

Liberal industry critic Marc Garneau warns that the bill may not advance, as unanimous consent is needed for Massey to assume ownership of the bill after Wasylycia-Lies’s resignation.

“It may be a challenge, because the Conservatives are not going to support it,” Garneau says.

If it does pass that hurdle, Elliott says the committee will have to deal with the “misinformation and the misdirection” from pharmaceutical companies, including claims that allowing exports of generic medicines to developing countries would undermine the incentive for researching new medicines, and that the bill goes against intellectual property obligations of the World Trade Organization.

“That is a wildly overstated claim,” Elliott says. “We’re talking about getting medicines to countries where they make very little profit now — all of Africa is less than two percent of global pharmaceutical sales. These are not markets that affect their decisions about what they spend on research and development.”

As for WTO obligations, Elliott points to numerous international legal experts who have affirmed that the reforms proposed by C-393 are WTO-compliant.

There is additional reticence by some MPs, including Liberal MP Garneau, about the bill’s efficacy.

“What I’m not skeptical about is the aim — I totally, 100 percent support the aim,” Garneau says. “If there’s a better way of doing it, I would prefer to do it a different way. Myself, my colleague Glen Pearson, who’s our international development critic and Keith Martin — both [of whom] have experience in Africa. They are going to come forward at some point with what we think is a better way to do it that will achieve the aim.”