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NDP’s access to medicines bill faces challenges

C-393 may be killed on a procedural motion

The NDP private member’s bill that would reform Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR) is currently undergoing clause-by-clause consideration, which wraps up on Monday. The Commons industry committee heard more than 10 hours of witness testimony over the past two weeks.

“We heard over and over again, from people who’ve actually got expertise and experience on the ground, that patents and high prices are barriers to access to medicine,” says Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, who testified before the committee.

The original CAMR legislation, passed in 2004, allows for generic companies to get compulsory licences for certain drugs for export to developing countries, under the theory that competition from generic companies will drive down the costs of drugs.

The bill, however, faces pushback from government officials and the research-based pharmaceutical industry, who say that the existing CAMR legislation works just fine, noting that Apotex used the regime to send a shipment of drugs to Rwanda.

Aid groups say that one shipment in six years demonstrates the system doesn’t work, and Apotex has said that the current regime is so complex they will not use it again unless it’s amended.

“I don’t think [opponents to C-393] can be taken seriously because time after time, the facts show that their objections are not, in fact, well founded,” Elliott says. This includes pointing out that other countries have laws similar to CAMR, and none have yet to be accessed.

“[That] ignores the fact that Canada’s is actually the one that has been around the longest; it’s the only one that anyone has actually attempted to use, and there may be a bunch of reasons for that, but the one attempt that has happened in the world so far to use the law has revealed its flaws,” Elliott says. “That should lead us to think that therefore we can do better.”

Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, president of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, was involved in the original CAMR process with Rwanda during her time with Doctors Without Borders. She echoes Elliott’s sentiments and adds that this bill is a way for Canada to contribute.

“Nobody is saying that this is a panacea, that it’s going to solve all the problems, but Canada can make a major contribution through this,” Kiddell-Monroe says. “There is nothing to keep Canada from doing that — we’ve heard that repeatedly. All the arguments against have been refuted time and time again.”

NDP MP Brian Masse, the bill’s current sponsor, believes that witness testimony proved the case that the bill will not violate Canada’s World Trade Organization agreements.

“What’s clear is it’s not working the way it is right now, and we can do one of several things to fix the bill and amend it and go forward,” says Masse.

Conservative committee member Peter Braid believes that the message from the testimony is the economics of drug production, and that Canada can’t compete in that market — despite the fact that Apotex did manufacture drugs at a competitive price with India.

“I also heard that perhaps the problem, or the solution, lies in fixing the root issue, which is how the WTO regulations have been written, so I’m going to continue to look at that,” Braid says.

Liberal industry critic Marc Garneau calls C-393 “a very difficult private member’s bill” and has proposed several amendments to the bill, some of which have been considered hostile to its intention.

The debate on those amendments is ongoing and sparked a walkout by the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign observers at the committee on Thursday morning.

As well, there have been persistent rumours that the bill may yet be killed on a procedural motion, when it must gain unanimous consent in the House of Commons for Masse to take over the bill from its original author, Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who retired from Parliament to run for mayor of Winnipeg.

“It would be nothing less than heartless and also a waste of money and resources,” Masse says. “It would be an extreme measure to kill the bill procedurally after all this work has gone into it.”