3 min

Procedural quagmire could kill dream of cheap AIDS drugs

Bill C-393 heads for third reading

Credit: Marcus McCann

Bill C-393, which aims to reform Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR), is heading for third-reading debate in the House of Commons, but what would normally have been a fairly straightforward process is growing more and more complex.

The bill would allow generic drug companies to produce cheap alternatives to brand-name pharmaceuticals to sell overseas. That includes generic versions of popular HIV/AIDS drugs.

Because the bill’s sponsor, Judy Wasylycia-Leis, resigned her seat last year to run for the mayoralty of Winnipeg, the official sponsorship now needs to be transferred to the NDP’s industry critic, Brian Masse, who has volunteered to take it on. But instead, procedural wrangling could kill the bill.

Because transferring the sponsorship of a bill has so rarely happened, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how it will go ahead.

“That bill’s coming up for debate on Monday [Feb 1], which I think procedurally means it would require immediate all-party support for the transferring of the sponsor from one to another, and I have no idea how that’s going to go,” says the Liberal House Leader David McGuinty. “I have no idea when it’ll take place, exactly.”

That unanimous vote is the first and biggest hurdle that needs to be cleared, but there have long been rumours that the Conservatives will use the vote to kill the bill.

In an effort to pressure MPs to vote to allow the bill to continue, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network has launched a website called Let Parliament Vote, where people can write their MPs to encourage them to allow the transfer in sponsorship to go forward.

But even if that vote passes, there are additional hurdles the bill faces at third-reading debate. The NDP has moved two different amendments that would undo some of the amendments made at committee stage. One would restore the “one-licence solution” clause, which means companies wouldn’t be required to ask permission from the government for each batch of medication it produces.

A second provision extends the definition of a pharmaceutical product. As it stands, CAMR has a limited list of drugs that can be accessed using the regime, but this amendment would allow drugs — as defined by the Food and Drugs Act — to be produced cheaply for distribution in the developing world.

“There was much discussion about whether these should simply be motions to reinstate clauses as they originally appeared in the bill and were deleted in committee, or whether they should be amendments that would propose somewhat different language that would achieve the same effect,” says Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

“We’ll see if that was the right call in the end or not,” Elliott says.

Further complicating matters, the Bloc put forward an amendment that would add a sunset clause to the bill, so that the reform would expire after a set period, likely four years. At the end of that period, the government could issue an order-in-council, agreed upon by both the Commons and the Senate, in order to further extend those reforms.

“To us that’s problematic for the very practical reason that if you go to the trouble of actually simplifying this regime to make it workable, but it’s only going to be workable for some short period of time, you’ve created another disincentive right there for anyone to bother doing it,” Elliott says.

“It’s a backhanded way of basically trying to render it ineffective.”

Apotex, the only manufacturer to use CAMR in its current form, declared the bureaucratic hurdles too cumbersome to attempt to do so again unless the legislation is amended.

“I think this is a poison-pill amendment, if you will, that the Bloc is putting forward, and I don’t think there’s a good rationale for it,” Elliott says.

Bloc health critic Luc Malo was unavailable for comment.

Government House Leader John Baird’s office says that the amendments can be debated before a vote takes place to transfer sponsorship of the bill, and that the motion to transfer sponsorship can be made at any time.

Masse was unable to comment by press time.