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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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 (http://www.msf.ca)
+Oxfam Canada (http://www.oxfam.ca)