Skip to main content

A private-member's bill that aims to fix a flawed Canadian effort to send cheap versions of patented drugs to impoverished countries has been significantly watered down by Conservative MPs and the Liberal industry critic.

The bill by former NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis was drafted to reform Canada's Access to Medicines Regime, which critics say was so fraught with red tape when it was introduced in 2005 that is virtually unusable.

Ms. Wasylycia-Leis had hoped to expand the provisions of the regime, which currently allows generic companies to apply for a limited two-year licence to reproduce a single drug, for a single country, in a specific quantity - restrictions that make the process economically impractical.

She had also hoped to expand the narrow list of medicines that can be reproduced under the regime, many of which can already be obtained more cheaply from India.

But amendments to the bill introduced by Liberal industry critic Marc Garneau at the Commons industry committee on Monday mean the limited list of drugs will be maintained. Mr. Garneau supports the aim of the bill, but opposes the legislation as it is written because he says it infringes on intellectual property rights.

The committee also decided that the two-year limit on the licences will not be lifted - Ms. Wasylycia-Leis's bill would have broadened the time frame.

"The core of Bill C393 has been removed," said Richard Elliott, the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. "So it will not change, in its current form, the Access to Medicines Regime and its current deficiencies that have been identified through the experience of actually trying to use it."

In its five-year history, the regime has been used by just one company to send one drug to one country. Mr. Elliott called the amendments an "unhappy and disappointing and disgusting result."

Some of the changes to the bill that were made by the committee could be restored by the House of Commons as a whole. While Mr. Garneau is not the lone member of the Liberal caucus to oppose the bill, he appears to be in the minority. The other two Liberals on the industry committee voted against his amendments.

But with Ms. Wasylycia-Leis no longer in Parliament, the bill needs a sponsor.

Her former NDP colleague, Brian Masse, is willing to take it on. But he can't do that without the unanimous consent of the House of Commons.

And, while the Liberals say they are prepared to allow the legislation to be turned over to Mr. Masse, the Conservatives have given no indication they are willing to do the same. So the future of the bill is still very much up in the air.

To deny the unanimous consent "would be really to deny democracy to the bill and also to show that we are disinterested in really helping people getting HIV, malaria, tuberculosis medicines that this bill promised to get," said Mr. Masse. "If you don't believe in this bill, then come forward with solutions or just outright admit that you don't like the access to medicine regime and you don't want Canada to participate in this type of a solution for so many people."