A bill aimed at unblocking Canada's efforts to make cheap generic versions of lifesaving drugs available to the world's poor will get its first real test in the majority Conservative Parliament this month – and its proponents are worried.
The private member's bill introduced by New Democrat MP Hélène Laverdière to overhaul Canada's Access to Medicines Regime is, in all practical ways, identical to one that was passed by the House of Commons in the final days of the previous Parliament. The earlier bill died in the Senate when the election was called in the spring of 2011.
Like its predecessor, Bill C-398 is an attempt to untie the knots in CAMR. The regime, which came into law under a Liberal government as part of a pledge to help the poor of Africa is so tangled in red tape that, in eight years of existence, it has been used to send just two batches of one generic drug to one country.
The House could vote on Nov. 28 to send Ms. Laverdière's proposed legislation to a committee for further study. If that doesn't happen, the bill will die.
"We have the impression that a number of [Conservatives] want to support it," Ms. Laverdière said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "They need the proper information because there's been a lot of inaccurate information circulating about the bill."
Some MPs have apparently been told the bill would reduce the safeguards preventing the drugs from being diverted to other countries where they would fetch more money, that it would weaken quality controls on drugs shipped overseas, and that it would violate Canada's obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization. None of those things are true, Ms. Laverdière said. It is unclear where the information is coming from.
The bill's detractors have argued that it would erode the intellectual property rights of the brand-name pharmaceutical companies. This time around, those companies are taking a wait-and-see approach. "We are following Bill C-398 as it moves through the parliamentary process," Russell Williams, president of Canada's Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies – which represents the brand-name drug makers – said in a statement. "We look forward to informing the discussion on how medicines and vaccines can best be provided to the developing world."
The earlier version of the bill was supported by most opposition members and 26 Conservatives, all but one of whom were re-elected. But the initiative has never found favour with the Harper government, and Tony Clement, who was then industry minister, asked Conservative senators to vote against it.
But the previous bill did receive a number of high-profile endorsements – from the Juno-award winning musician K'naan; former UN ambassador Stephen Lewis, who was also the United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa; and author Margaret Atwood, among others.
Bonnie Johnson, co-chair of the Grandmothers Advocacy Network's Hill Team, which is lobbying for passage of the current bill, said the work of her group extended naturally from a campaign organized by Mr. Lewis to get grandmothers in Canada to help African grandmothers who are caring for the orphans of AIDS victims.
"I think we have to ask, is it democratic to refuse to send a bill to committee that was already passed in the House?" Ms. Johnson said.
UNICEF Canada also launched a campaign this week in support of Bill C-393 called Medicines Are for All. David Morley, the head of the aid organization, said he believes the reform of CAMR is a good fit with the maternal and child-health initiative launched two years ago by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to help save the lives of women and children around the world.