Industry Minister Tony Clement has asked his Conservative colleagues in the Senate to vote against an NDP bill that would allow generic companies to copy brand-name drugs and sell them at cut rates to the world's poorest countries.
The supporters of the bill were hoping that endorsements by celebrities like K'naan and Margaret Atwood would persuade senators to fast-track the bill through the Red Chamber before the government falls on Friday and all legislation is lost.
The bill, an attempt to untie the knots in Canada's Access to Medicines Regime, had the support of an handful of Conservative MPs and Senator Nancy Ruth. As it was written by a former Liberal government, CAMR is so full of tangles that, in seven years of its existence, it has been used by just one company to send one AIDS drug to one country.
But the Conservative government has not endorsed the NDP bill, which was passed in the House of Commons with large support from opposition members. And Mr. Clement, who divested himself of a 25 per cent stake in a pharmaceutical company by transferring shares to a partner after he became a cabinet minister, made it clear in his e-mail that he does not want to see it passed into law.
New Democratic MP Paul Dewar told the House of Commons on Thursday the Industry Minister was using the unelected Senate to pit profits for big drug companies against saving lives. "Do the Conservatives understand democracy, or do they just not like it?" Mr. Dewar asked.
Mr. Clement responded by saying the bill, as drafted, will not do anything to help the worlds' poor. He went on to chastise the opposition for prompting an "unnecessary election" that will kill the legislation.
In his e-mail to senators, Mr. Clement said Bill C -393 would allow drugs that have not been certified by Health Canada to be shipped "to unsuspecting populations, to their detriment." The drugs, he wrote, could be redirected to the black market with proceeds going to non-humanitarian causes such as weapons, and the shipments could run afoul of domestic laws and traditions.
"If current patents are threatened, the patent holders will leave Canada seeking shelter in countries which value patent protection. The loss to Canadian R & D will be significant," he wrote. And "most importantly, Canadian generics are some of the most expensive in the world. With C-393 or not, NGOs in the developing world will direct their precious resources to cheaper drugs coming from places like India and Asia."
Richard Elliott, the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, which has been one of the main proponents of the bill, fired back with his own e-mail to senators that denounced Mr. Clement's claims as preposterous.
Bill C-393, he wrote, does not remove the requirement that Health Canada approve drugs exported under CAMR, it does not remove or weaken the existing safeguards against the diversion of medicines, it does not allow for medicines to be used in an eligible developing country contrary to its domestic law, and it does not run counter to Canada's World trade obligations.
It does not threaten jobs or investments in research and development in Canada, wrote Mr. Elliott. "This unbelievable claim is made by big pharma based on no evidence and has been debunked by economist experts in submissions to parliamentary committees."
And finally, he wrote, the price of generic drugs in Canada is irrelevant. What is relevant "are the prices that Canadian generic manufacturers are able to offer to developing countries."
Clarification Tony Clement divested himself of shares in a pharmaceutical company after he became a cabinet minister. He has had no right, title or interest in the company since 2006.