Canadian government wants to make generic drugs available to developing nations

Tuesday 7 October 2003, by Cameron BAUGHEN

Beginning at the end of September several highly placed Liberals, including Jean Chrétien, Alan Rock, Pierre Pettigrew and Paul Martin, have declared that they are in support of changing the Canadian Patent Act to allow for the Canadian manufacture of cheap generic drugs solely for export to developing nations. This follows the WTO decision on August 31st that expands the exportation of generic drugs to nations that desire them. Still, although seen as a move in a positive direction, many health experts are cautiously watching the moves of the Canadian government.

Generic drugs, which can be 10 to 20 times less expensive then their identical brand name counterparts, are seen by many global health advocates as an important tool for impoverished nations to be able to afford to save the lives of millions of people, especially those living with HIV. By forcing in increased competition through such tactics as compulsory licensing, where generic companies have the right to produce a medicine by paying a percentage to the patent holder, it is hoped Canada can help save thousands, if not millions of lives.

Over the last twenty years successive Canadian governments have continuously limited the manufacturing of generic drugs in Canada. During the reign of the Conservative party in the 1980’s, under lobbying from the brand name pharmaceutical sector and the American government, the Canadian government weakened the ability for generic drug companies to access compulsory licenses. The Liberal government, under similar lobbying pressure, effectively weakened this ability to nothingness during the time of the North American Free Trade Agreement. On the international stage the Canadian government has historically fought hard to insure the patent protection of brand name drug companies through negotiations at the WTO and other international agreements. The recent WTO declaration was actually delayed by one year because industrial nations, such as Canada, were demanding tight, bureaucratic conditions in favour of patent holder rights. Currently the Liberal party is strongly tied with the lucrative brand name drug industry both in terms of direct party contributions and personal links. Murray J. Elston, a one time Liberal Minister of Health for Ontario, is currently president of Rx&D, Canada’s brand name pharmaceutical advocacy group.

Richard Elliott of the Canadian HIV/ AIDS Legal Network points to three major events that prompted this recent policy shift in favour of generic drugs both the WTO and the Liberal caucus. One is the global pandemic of AIDS with catastrophic levels of infection especially in impoverished parts of southern Africa where generic drugs are seen as a major tool in prolonging life. A second was the public relations disaster of the failed legal action of 39 pharmaceutical companies that challenged South Africa’s ability to use generic drugs to effectively deal with the over 5 million people currently infected with HIV in that country. The third stems from the recent serious threats of American and Canadian governments to over ride patent protection by issuing compulsory licensing of the anti-anthrax drug CIPRO or ciprofloxin.

For Elliott this last point shows the utter contemptible position Canada has been taking on the world stage. « Through out the world there are hundreds of thousands of people without access to affordable medicine who are sick and dying and then when there are just a handful of anthrax cases in the US, all of a sudden the US and Canada are turning to the possibility of compulsory licensing and using generic drugs because they do not want to pay 2 dollars a pill instead of 1 dollar a pill. »

Beyond the protection of patent rights to promote development of new drugs many of the arguments against allowing compulsory patenting put forward by the Brand name drug industry rest on the current availability of generic drugs from large developing countries like Brazil, India and Thailand. These nations have large domestic generic drug industries that have the capacity to export a quantity of high quality drugs at very low prices. Brand name companies in particular have been vocal that the move by the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association (CGPA) to support compulsory licenses is more about eroding patent protection then helping developing nations.

Advocates for health in developing nations strongly disagree. The staggering need for drugs at low cost in developing nations far outstrips the ability of any single nation or even a handful of developing nations to produce. Advocates agree that even with Canada’s resources we could not meet the need alone but must work in partnership with as many nations as possible, both in the global north and south. In this way increased competition and expanded volume would force the price down amoung generic providers and give brand name companies further incentive to compete as well. The CGPA believes that Canadian companies can compete competitively and effectively with low cost generic drugs from Brazil, India and Thailand by focusing on the guaranteed quality of the drugs being produced in Canada. Generic drug manufactures are eager to risk the cost of production and advocates for global health have been vocally supporting them.

For Stephen Lewis, the UN Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, Canada’s particular role in supporting generic drugs also goes much further then just increasing competitive pricing. Although the recent declaration has allowed for greater access to generic drugs, the TRIPS agreement historically still allowed for the limited trade of generics. Unfortunatly the political pressure exerted and the Machiavellian games played by industrialized nations, including Canada, were sufficient to dissuade southern nations to fully exploit this potential. The current system of generic drug trading agreed to this August still consists of a maze of rules that allow for exploitation. According to Lewis, Canada’s position as a member of the G7 and its role in the WTO means that if it was to proceed in supplying generic drugs in conjunction with a southern partner then it would set a precedent that would open the door for increased partnerships through out the world. This would go perfectly with Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s recent commitments to helping Africa and Canada’s perceived role as a champion of human rights. « If a country like Canada, states Lewis, a member of the G7, says we will provide drugs at generic prices for Africa there will be no conditions and barriers. It will work and that is the test for Jean Chrétien.

The bill to amend the patent act is currently being developed by the Liberal caucus. The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network is hoping for a clear and simple amendment but what is feared is that, the government will table restrictions that will needlessly inhibit, prohibit or overly complicate the sale generic drugs to impoverished nations. Global health advocates are asking that Canadians become involved in pressuring their elected representatives to move forward on this issue.

Cameron Baughen

People concerned with this issue can attain further information at <> and can write to their Federal representatives demanding quick and humane action.

People concerned with this issue can attain further information at and can write to their Federal representatives demanding quick and humane action.

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