The Toronto Star, March 10, 2011
By Tanya Talaga
A groundswell of grandmothers, prominent Canadians and AIDS activists has forced Ottawa to deliver on a promise made eight years ago to send life-saving medicine to Africa.
In a rare show of unity, the New Democratic Party, the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois came together to force Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime, Bill C-393, into law on Wednesday.
Even some Conservatives broke ranks and voted for the CAMR bill that would allow generic drug makers to supply medication to fight public health threats in developing nations. Canadian generic drug giant Apotex Inc. has promised to use the legislation to make children’s anti-AIDS medication.
The World Health Organization says 15 million people – including two million children – need access to antiretroviral AIDS drugs and only five million are receiving them.
For years, a grassroots effort led by lawyer Richard Elliott of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network spread across the country in support of the bill.
Grandmothers petitioned their MPs, physicians sent letters and even rock stars said Canada should “do the right thing.” The Star has also written numerous editorials in support of the legislation.
“The world is watching,” said Dr. James Orbinski, a supporter of the bill and co-founder of the medical agency Dignitas International.
“This is a test to Canada’s commitment to humanitarianism,” he said from Ottawa. Orbinski was head of Médecins Sans Frontières when the organization won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.
The count was 172 to 111. Once the bill carried, those in the public gallery of the packed House of Commons erupted in cheers.
“There is jubilation here now,” Elliott said from Ottawa. “We can’t give this up.”
The bill now goes to the Senate.
“We are one very significant step closer to actually making CAMR work the way it should have seven years ago when it was introduced,” Elliott said. “There is support for this across party lines and that spirit should be reflected in the Senate as well.”
For years, Canada has dithered and wasted precious time arguing about the bill when people are dying, said Stephen Lewis, the former United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.
Yet this bill – which has the ability to make medication to help children and mothers with HIV/AIDS – completely fits into the maternal and child health dossier of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Lewis said. “This is entirely a pediatric initiative, it is completely on track with what Harper is espousing.”
The Conservatives have historically not supported the legislation.
Generic drug makers cannot make a profit under the legislation and brand name companies will still get royalties, said Lewis.
“Yet the Tories are determined to support the brand name drug industry over the lives of children,” he said. “That makes no sense.”
If Canada would have passed this bill two years ago, the country could have bolstered its chances for a seat on the UN Security Council, said Lewis, who now sits on the board of CHAI, former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s Health Access Initiative.
“It would have been seen as such an act of good faith toward the developing world that it would have created a momentum in Canada’s favour,” he said.
The bill began as a dream of former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s administration. It was intended to honour Chrétien’s legacy by allowing generic drug makers to produce medication for nations who appealed to Canada for help to fight diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
The legislation was seen as revolutionary at the time and it was trumpeted at the UN in New York City by then-UN ambassador Allan Rock.
However, when Harper came to power, he changed the name to CAMR.
While the bill passed in 2004, only one country, Rwanda, has ever successfully used it to gain access to antiretroviral AIDS medication.
The bill, Apotex said, was too cumbersome and mired in bureaucratic red tape to actually use. Generic firms had to get separate licences for each country, each drug and for limited time periods.
Only Apotex has successfully used it to date to make a triple combination anti-AIDS medication for 21,000 Rwandans for two years. The process was so horrendous, Apotex vowed not to do it again until the legislation was fixed to a one-licence solution.
The one-licence solution simplifies the process for generic drug firms by allowing them to obtain a single licence to supply a given drug to all developing nations that qualify.
At an Ottawa news conference before the vote Wednesday, rock star K’naan urged parliamentarians to “do the right thing” and pass the bill. “People dying of treatable illnesses – that is not their destiny, it is preventable,” K’naan said.