Just yesterday, American pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson opened the door for the generic production of an important HIV/AIDS drug .North of the border, efforts to encourage generic drug manufacturing hit a snag when Canadian lawmakers voted against a bill that would have made it easier for pharmaceutical companies to produce and sell generic drugs to developing countries.
The bill – which was originally introduced in 2011 but died when a federal election was called – would have cut through some of the red tape that has been constraining the ability of Canadian generic drug makers to sell medicine at low prices in the developing world.
Many leading health organizations – including the World Health Organization – argue that making life-saving drugs to treat deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS or TB affordable is one of the ways in which health outcomes in the developing world can be improved. Indeed, affordability of drugs is a significant issue, one which Canada tackled back in 2004, when it passed “Canada’s Access to Medicine Regime” (CAMR), a law that opened the door to the production and sale of generic medicines globally. However, CAMR has been marred by restrictive rules and red tape – in its eight years of existence, it’s enabled only one shipment of generic drugs to a developing country. The defeated bill, which would have eased such restrictions, did not find much support among the ranks of the majority Conservative Party, whose members argue the bill would not have achieved its intended aims. Another argument raised by Conservative members of Parliament is that the proposed bill would have violated Canada’s WTO obligations, including, presumably, the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, which which grants extensive patent rights to pharmaceutical companies.
On its face, it’s a shame that Canada couldn’t follow through on its commitment to making generic drugs more readily available in the developing world, given the proven efficacy in reducing mortality that access to cheap medicine has. Canada has a significant generic pharmaceutical drug industry, which certainly would have been benefited from this bill – an argument which should have sold MPs on both sides of the aisle.
It’s useful, however, to consider some of the critical voices on this issue that come from a non-partisan perspective. Dr. Keith Martin, a former Canadian MP, (who I met in 2010 at the Women Deliver conference, where he was passionately advocating for women’s rights) is one of these dissenting voices, offering a different view on the matter. Martin argues that access to cheap medicine is not the real barrier to improving health outcomes in the developing world. Instead, he points to the need to deal with the root causes of poverty, which prevent people from buying even the cheapest drugs and dysfunctional, underfunded and poorly staffed health care systems.
While there is certainly some merit to Martin’s line of thinking, solutions to improving health care in the developing world should not be thought of as a zero-sum game. Multi-pronged approaches, which include various policy tools – including bills like the one just recently defeated – are needed. Tackling poverty in the developing world should not be at the expense of passing laws that increase access to cheap drugs for people who need it. And neither should Canadian lawmakers shield themselves from their humanitarian responsibility by deploying arguments about trade agreements, when even Canadian brand-name pharma companies didn’t oppose the bill.
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