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Singer K'naan takes part in a New Democratic Party caucus meeting in Ottawa March 9, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Singer K'naan takes part in a New Democratic Party caucus meeting in Ottawa March 9, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Globe Editorial

Ottawa needs to pass generic-drug bill Add to ...

One of the leading killers of women in the developing world is HIV/AIDS. They cannot afford to buy prohibitively expensive brand-name drugs, which are protected by patent monopolies.

A federal private member's bill that would make it possible for Canadian generic-drug companies to supply developing countries with affordable medication will go to a vote tonight in the House of Commons.

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This initiative will save lives. It deserves support.

Bill C-393 is already favoured by the New Democrats, most Liberal MPs, the Bloc Québécois (as long as the life of the bill is limited to 10 years), as well as a long list of scientists, doctors, activists, and K'naan, the Juno-Award-winning singer.

The government, however, opposes the bill, concerned about intellectual copyright, and unconvinced the drugs will be affordable - but is allowing Conservative backbenchers to vote in favour.

Bill C-393 proposes to fix the flaws in the 2004 legislation, Canada's Access to Medicines Regime, which was supposed to permit generic-drug companies to sell low-priced drugs to poor countries fighting diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

At the time, this legislation was considered innovative. Canada was one of the first countries in the world to take advantage of a World Trade Organization decision that allowed generic manufacturers to copy specified drugs and export them to a list of developing countries.

However, in its current form, the legislation is so cumbersome that it has only been used once, by Apotex Inc., which sold anti-retrovirals to Rwanda. The legislation requires generic-drug companies to negotiate a licence agreement with patent holders for each quantity of drug sold in each country.

Bill C-393 would remove this burden, by streamlining the application process. "The bill would get rid of the case-by-case process, and allow generics to get one license that could be used for multiple drugs in multiple countries," says Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. This would allow for greater efficiencies, and bring down the cost of the drugs.

Only about one-third of the 15 million people with HIV who need anti-retroviral drugs have access to them, and most live in the developing world.

If the bill passes, Apotex has promised to make a lower-cost children's version of a key AIDS drug.

Fixing the flawed legislation dovetails perfectly with the Harper government's declaration that the health of women and children in the developing world is a key priority. It is the right thing to do.

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