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Access-to-medicines back on the parliamentary agenda

Jenn Wiebe

Canada may be one step closer to fulfilling its promise to provide affordable and life-saving medicines for those in developing countries facing devastating, but treatable, diseases.

Yesterday afternoon, civil society groups across Canada welcomed the re-introduction of an important private member's bill in the House of Commons. Tabled by NDP MP and Opposition Foreign Affairs Critic Hélène Laverdière, Bill C-398—An Act to amend the Patent Act (drugs for international humanitarian purposes)—is designed to make it easier for Canadian companies to produce and export much-needed generic medicines to the developing world for those battling diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

More specifically, this legislation aims to improve Canada's Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR). Formally established in 2005 (created via legislation passed unanimously in parliament the year prior), the regime currently allows generic companies to apply for a limited two-year licence to recreate a single generic drug, for a single country, in a specific quantity. While laudable in its original intent, these restrictions have made CAMR virtually unusable. In over seven years, the regime has only been successfully used once to authorize the export of a single shipment of AIDS drugs to Rwanda.

To remedy these problems, Bill C-398 seeks to remove CAMR's red tape—one of its core proposed amendments is the introduction of a "one-license solution" that would enable generic drug manufacturers to fill multiple orders of the same medicine to different countries under one simple licence.

This is not the first time an access-to-medicines bill has been tabled in the House. Introduced for the first time in 2009 by former NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis and later picked up by NDP MP Paul Dewar, a similar piece of legislation—previously named C-393—had a long and complicated journey through the last parliament, facing stiff opposition from pharmaceutical lobbyists and potentially damaging amendments made during the legislative process.

While the former bill finally passed third reading in the House of Commons last March, when the 40th parliament came to a dramatic end on March 25, Bill C-393 died along with it. Despite its support from a few Conservatives, leaked memos indicated that even prior to parliament's dissolution the bill was set to die, at the industry minister Tony Clement's urging, as it travelled through Senate.

As a bill actively supported by civil society groups and health activists across Canada, many are celebrating its reintroduction in the House and will be engaging the government as it journeys through parliament.

Ms. Laverdière—thanks to her high position on the lottery list for private member's business—anticipates that Bill C-398 could come before the House of Commons sometime in the spring or early autumn. In the meantime, she hopes to build substantial cross-party support for this important issue.