Canada is on the verge of becoming the first country to allow
drug companies to legally make and export cheap, generic medicines
for needy nations.
Thursday, a parliamentary committee in Ottawa will review draft
legislation that would let drugmakers seek licenses to make generic
versions of patented medicines to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and
malaria in developing nations. The legislation could become a
template for other countries to follow.
But what should be good news for poor countries is being
overshadowed by a looming battle in Canada's Parliament. The battle
pits pharmaceutical companies that have poured billions of dollars
and countless research hours into developing these medicines against
the generic-drug industry and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)
that say the world should "do the right thing." Canada's challenge
is trying to strike the right balance between the two sides.
"The question is whether Canada gets it right," Richard Elliott
of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the group spear- heading NGO
lobbying efforts. "Will it be a good precedent or a bad one?"
Canada is the first country to act on the World Trade
Organization's Aug. 30, 2003, decision to revise international
patent rules to let developing nations import copies of brand-name
drugs in cases where they can't make their own medicine. Strict
rules prevent drugs from being diverted to wealthy countries.
The WTO's decision aimed to soothe the controversy sparked by
Brazil and India, which have been exporting AIDS knock-off drugs to
Africa, but in violation of WTO rules. Brazilian and Indian generic-
drug firms must implement the WTO's patent rules by next year, which
means they'll be following Canada's lead.
But not everyone is happy with Canada's prescription to tackle
the world's health woes. Critics say the proposal undermines efforts
to deliver affordable drugs to nations needing them most.
"The existing legislation is flawed because it includes the
opportunity for brand-name companies who hold the patents on
medicines to block or undermine potential competition in the
marketplace," Mr. Elliott says.
The Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association (CGPA), which
represents 22 companies, says generic drugmakers aren't interested
in making medicine under these conditions.
"The government's intention is laudable, but it is unlikely that
any generic pharmaceutical company in Canada will use it unless
substantial amendments are made," says Jim Keon, CGPA president. …