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Homearrow News and Events Year 2010 Health advocates call for generic drug overhaul - Vancouver Sun

Health advocates call for generic drug overhaul - Vancouver Sun

A law meant to help Canada send desperately needed medication to those suffering with HIV/ AIDS overseas has turned out to be an abject failure, say health advocates who are calling on the federal government to support a new bill that would overhaul the current system.

They argue Canada's Access to Medicine Regime, passed in 2004 to boost exports of lower-cost pharmaceuticals to developing countries, is still so stuffed with red tape, generic medicine manufacturers won't use it.

In six years, it has only been used once, to send a shipment of an HIV/ AIDS treatment to Rwanda.

"One drug has left the country," said Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network executive director Richard Elliott. "One drug to one country in six years is not a success."

Elliott is one of many advocates urging Parliament to pass a private member's bill introduced by former Manitoba NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis.

Bill C-393 aims to make it easier to license generic drug manufacturers to produce patented drugs. Supporters say it would make the process of getting life-saving medications for tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS to developing countries more effective.

But some of the MPs charged with studying the bill are neither convinced the law is the problem, nor that bill C-393 is the solution.

There is also concern the bill might diminish incentives for brand-name pharmaceutical companies to research and develop new medicines, that the low-cost drugs will eventually return to Canada's black market, and that, ultimately, there is no market for Canada's relatively expensive generic medications.

"We all want the same thing," said Conservative MP Mike Lake, highlighting his support for fighting HIV/ AIDS. "But (the program) isn't being used because there are better things out there."

There has been significant progress in treating disease in developing countries without the help of Canada's access regime, Lake said.

The number of patients being treated for HIV/AIDS in developing countries jumped to 5.2 million in 2010 from 400,000 in 2003, according to Dr.. Don Kilby, founder of the Canada Africa Community Health Alliance, who testified with Elliott before a House of Commons committee this past week.

But there are still another approximately five million people in need of treatment, and that number will increase as more patients become resistant to their drugs, he said.

Many of the generic drugs currently used in Africa, Gabon and Tanzania come from India, where generic medicines are relatively cheap. And though new patent laws in India may drive prices up in the future, there is still a question of whether Canada will be able to compete.

A 2006 report from the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board, says Canada had the highest retail prices for generic drugs among 11 countries, which included the United States, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, France and the United Kingdom.

The Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association, however, has argued those numbers are misleading. Retail prices for generic drugs in Canada have dropped between 40 and 60 per cent since that report was published, said spokesman Jeff Connell.

Canada's current law requires generic manufacturers to have a request for drugs from a developing country before entering negotiations with patent-holders.

The proposed Bill C-393 would allow a company that has been granted a single licence to produce as much of the generic version of the drug as it wishes. In theory, that would let the manufacturer cut transportation costs and bid to supply a number of countries simultaneously. Advocates say the changes would drive down the overall cost of the medication.

As with the existing law, the medication could only be produced for the purpose of exporting lower-cost generic drugs to eligible countries -- a list that's been laid out by the World Trade Organization.

The House industry committee is hearing a slate of witnesses Tuesday, before deliberating the bill clause-by-clause on Thursday.

The committee is scheduled to present its findings to the House in early November.

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