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K'naan urges MPs to pass a generic-drugs bill at a press conference in Ottawa on March, 9, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
K'naan urges MPs to pass a generic-drugs bill at a press conference in Ottawa on March, 9, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

K'naan to MPs: Voting down generic-drug bill would be slight to world's poor Add to ...

Musician K'naan says a bill that would remove the roadblocks preventing cheap generic copies of life-saving drugs for the world's poorest countries is a matter of fundamental human justice.

Federal MPs will cast a final vote Wednesday on Bill C-393, an NDP private-member's bill that would fix the problems that have rendered Canada's Access to Medicines Regime ineffective.

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"I do believe that, if you are in a position to do something to help someone, and you can, withholding that becomes a matter of injustice," the Juno-award winning musician told reporters at a news conference on Parliament Hill in the hours before the vote.

K'naan, a Somali-born Canadian whose song Wavin' Flag was Coca Cola's anthem for the 2010 World Cup, said the aim of the bill fit perfectly with the way the world sees Canada as a generous and giving country.

"It's a compelling case and it's a human thing and it's made me leave my recording, which I rarely leave for anything," he said. "When you are recording a song, it's like tending to a child and you never want to abandon it; but I left because I think this is one of those moments that defines who we are as a nation and I really hope that we can do something great."

If the bill passes, the generic-drug maker Apotex has agreed to begin the reproduction of a pediatric drug to treat children with HIV. James Orbinski, the founder of Dignitas International, a medical humanitarian organization, said that alone could save millions of lives.

With generic drugs, the HIV/AIDS treatments that once cost $10,000 a year could be reduced to $100 a year - and less than that for children, Dr. Orbinski said.

Stephen Lewis said he believes that, had this bill been passed into law last year, Canada would have not have lost the vote at the United Nations that denied this country a seat on the UN Security Council.

Many other countries have similar legislation to the law that is currently on the books and all are riddled with the same flaw: The scope of the licences that they grant is too narrow to allow generic drug companies to mass produce a medicine for large numbers of people in multiple countries, which renders the proposition economically and logistically unfeasible.

Mr. Lewis said that the people who will benefit from this legislation include millions of children and women who are infected with HIV as a result of being raped in conflict situations.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared the health of women and children to be the central development initiative of the G8 meeting in Canada last year.

Mr. Lewis said: "I can't imagine anything that synchronizes more directly, that integrates more directly into his involvement in maternal and child care than would this legislation."

The New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois support the motion, but the Liberals are divided and there are just a few Conservatives who are in favour of it. The predominant argument against it is that it would infringe on intellectual property rights and reduce the motive for the brand-name drug companies to conduct the research that leads to pharmaceutical innovations.

The Access to Medicines Regime was introduced by a former Liberal government as part of a pledge to help Africa's poor. But it is so fraught with red tape that, in more than six years of existence, it has been used to send just two batches of one generic drug to one country.

The regime was established to allow generic manufacturers to copy brand-name medicines for distribution to places in the world that cannot afford them. It is a concept that was opposed from the outset by the brand-name pharmaceutical companies and the knots written into the original legislation have rendered it almost useless.

When the bill went to a Commons committee this past fall, MPs who oppose it stripped out the section that would have allowed the generic manufacturers to use just one licence to send multiple batches of drugs to different countries. That was restored last week - much to the relief of the bill's supporters - after the legislation was returned to the House of Commons for final debate.

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