A long-running attempt to make it easier to produce and distribute copies of patented medicines for sale at cut-rate prices to the world's poorest countries has been approved by the House of Commons.
A private-member's bill known as C-393, which has gained the support of some Canadian celebrities including the musician K'naan and writer Margaret Atwood, is now headed to the Conservative-dominated Senate.
K'naan, a Canadian born in Somalia, told reporters on Wednesday that he took time away from recording news songs to make a public stand in favour of the bill.
"If I look at the kind of fortunes that I (have), it compels me to do something, it compels me to look back and see what it is that I can change..." said the Juno-award-winning musician.
"What is the most important (thing) is when a nation can look at another nation, or another group of people that are bleeding, and say that 'that is my blood as well' - that they can see outside of their particular experience and say 'I am going to do something,' because that is the human experience."
The bill was first introduced in 2009 by former New Democrat MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis and was handed off to one of her colleagues when she retired. NDP Leader Jack Layton, who has been in hospital recovering from hip surgery, appeared in the House specially for the vote which passed with the help of the Bloc Quebecois, all but two Liberals, and a handful of Conservatives.
James Orbinski, the founder of Dignitas International, a medical humanitarian organization, pleaded with Senators to expedite it into law.
"It will save millions of lives, not in some distant future but literally within the next year or two," said Dr. Orbinksi. The generic-drug maker Apotex has said that, if the legislation is successful, it will begin the production of a pediatric medicine to treat children in developing countries with HIV.
The Access to Medicines Regime was introduced by a former Liberal government as part of a pledge to help Africa's poor. But the licences that it grants are severely limited and, in it's seven-year-history, it has been used to send just two batches of a single drug to one developing country. Bill C-393 would eliminate many of the restrictions that the generic companies say have rendered the regime unworkable.
Those who oppose the legislation argue that it violates intellectual property rights and will dampen the enthusiasm of brand-name pharmaceutical companies to invest in medical research.
Brett Skinner, the president of the Fraser Institute who specializes in health policy research, said most developing countries do not register patents so Bill C-393 won't change anything.
"Patents are not a barrier to access. And, when generic companies had access to these markets under previous provisions, they just simply did not ship their drugs to these (impoverished) countries," said Mr. Skinner. There is a fear, he said, is that the cheap generic copies of these medicines will instead be sold to secondary markets like Hungary.
But Richard Elliott, the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network which has been a leading proponent of the bill, said patents do exist in some developing countries. And, in any case, it is against the law for Canadian generic manufacturers to copy and produce patented drugs here for sale abroad.
Stephen Lewis, the former United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, said children and women who are infected with HIV are among those who have the most to gain from the passage of Bill C-393.
He pointed out that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as chair of last year's G-8 summit, launched an international maternal and child health initiative. "I can't imagine anything," he said, "that synchronizes more directly, that integrates more directly into his involvement in maternal and child care than would this legislation."