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CANADA: Cheap HIV Drugs for Africa Threatened by Domestic Politics


OTTAWA, Nov 4 (IPS) - Canada's plan to be the first G8 country to relax its patent rules to allow generic copies of anti-HIV drugs to be manufactured and shipped to pandemic regions in Africa and other southern nations might be snagged in a web of domestic political changes.

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien promised the patent law changes at September's World Trade Organisation (WTO) meetings in Cancun, Mexico. He planned to bring in the changes as part of his "legacy" agenda before his retirement scheduled for early February, 2004.

As late as last Wednesday, International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew told IPS that he expected to introduce legislation into the Canadian parliament soon. "This is a priority for our government," Pettigrew said. "We are working on it as quickly as we can."

But Chretien's departure and his "legacy" legislation, a series of bills to clean up election campaign financing, decriminalise marijuana possession and ban human cloning, might now be out of his control.

The prime minister is under intense pressure to resign early to make way for a more conservative leader for the governing Liberal Party.

Paul Martin, one of the wealthiest men in Canada, with a fortune estimated at 500 million U.S. dollars, has the overwhelming support of delegates to the Nov. 15 Liberal Party leadership convention.

Martin has said he will respect Chretien's desire to stay in the prime minister's office until early 2004, but many government MPs (members of parliament) want a transition now.

If Chretien does give in to pressure to quit, Parliament will be adjourned and is unlikely to deal with any legislation until the fall of 2004.

Government bureaucrats are scrambling to get the legislation into Parliament, says Mark Fried, communications and advocacy advisor for Oxfam Canada.

"We were called into meetings over the weekend. Government officials are working very hard to push this through, but I'm worried about what will happen. I would hope that Parliament will resume early and get this bill passed before an election," he said in an interview Monday.

The proposed bill has the support of major brand name and generic drug companies. It would permit Canadian makers of generics to produce "cocktail" drugs that slow or prevent full-blown AIDS. It would also allow generic copying of drugs to treat other pandemic diseases in developing countries.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is also behind the plan, reportedly calling Foreign Minister Bill Graham twice in recent weeks to speed up the bill.

The major pharmaceutical companies and the U.S. government have aggressively challenged attempts by poor countries to make use of the public health safeguards in the TRIPS agreement on trade and copyright, which theoretically allow countries facing health crises to import the cheapest medicines available.

But a team of five Canadian cabinet ministers convinced the organisation that represents multinational drug companies here to support the plan to change the patent law to help fight HIV/AIDS in Africa.

"The loss to the multinationals is minimal," a Canadian minister told IPS last week.

"How can they lose money when the people who get these drugs would never have been customers? They can't afford these drugs. The big companies get good public relations without sacrificing profits."

The Canadian patent amendments have been lauded by many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which hope the Canadian initiative, along with generic drugs from India and South Africa, can slow the spread of AIDS in Africa.

"This amendment is great and let's get it done now. Canada can play a leading role and provide a model for other countries," said Dr. James Orbinski of Doctors Without Borders.

"We can't wait another year for legal fineries, and want this passed in Canadian Parliament within a week," he added in an interview last week.

"Our experience in delivering anti-retroviral (ARV) medicines to treat patients living with HIV/AIDS in the developing world shows competition from generic manufacturers results in sustained, dramatic decreases in the cost of treating people in developing countries."

"Treatment and care also provides concrete clinical benefits and positive effects on the lives of individuals and their communities."

Orbinski said MSF and the WHO have just released a report documenting the successful use of ARVs in 10 countries, disproving oft-repeated claims that such treatment cannot be effectively or safely delivered in poor countries.

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network is also urging the government to act swiftly.

The new Canadian law should allow generic drugs to be exported to all poor regions rather than only to those nations facing health emergencies or to treat only certain diseases, says Richard Elliott, the network's director of legal policy and research.

"Waiting until things reach a crisis point before getting affordable treatment to people is bad medicine and bad public policy," Elliott said in an interview.

"Which medicines enjoyed by Canadians should we say are off-limits to developing countries? Even under WTO patent rules, sovereign countries still get to decide how they balance patent protection against health protection," he added.

"If another country's laws allow for the importation of lower-cost generic medicines, there is no reason why Canadian law should block companies here from supplying those medicines," said Elliott.

But in his interview with IPS, Pettigrew said the bill will stop short of allowing generic companies to supply all medicines to developing nations.

"The key word is 'pandemic'," he said. "The bill will help millions of people in very poor parts of Africa. We are not abandoning all patent protection."

+Doctors Without Borders (

+Oxfam Canada (


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Information in this article was accurate in November 4, 2003. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.