Big drug companies embrace AIDS plan
By HEATHER SCOFFIELD and PAUL KNOX
Canada's Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies, a lobby group for the brand-name firms, said in a press release that it recognizes that Canada "has an opportunity to show international leadership" by changing patent laws to improve access to drugs for the diseases.
The statement contrasted sharply with the position last week of an international brand-name industry official, who called Ottawa's new generics plan window-dressing and a "negative black eye" that would drive investment away from Canada.
And it was hailed as a "very significant development" by Stephen Lewis, the United Nations special envoy to Africa on AIDS issues, who had earlier criticized brand-name manufacturers for resisting the plan.
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's government should now be able to get amended patent laws in place before the end of the year, Mr. Lewis said. "They've got everybody on board."
Nevertheless, federal officials expect tough negotiations with the brand-name manufacturers over the scope of patent exemptions.
The officials, working around the clock on the legislation, hope it can become law in the next month or so before Mr. Chrétien prorogues the House of Commons in preparation for his retirement.
Liberal politicians are lobbying other parties to get the unanimous support required for quick passage.
But federal insiders say the drafting is proving harder than Industry Minister Allan Rock initially thought and it may be "next to impossible" to push it through this fall.
The new legislation would exempt generic drug companies from regulations that make it illegal for them to produce cheaper versions of brand-name companies' drugs.
Without speedy implementation, it would be hard to translate the Canadian initiative into realization of the UN's goal of getting three million AIDS patients worldwide into drug treatment by 2005.
Mr. Lewis said yesterday he hopes Ottawa's move will prod other rich countries to take similar steps.
It was a plea from Mr. Lewis last week that prompted federal cabinet ministers to go public with the new plan, which would allow Canada's generic drug makers for the first time to export low-cost versions of anti-AIDS and other medicines to the developing world.
Besides the cabinet and the generics industry, the plan has the support of prime-minister-designate Paul Martin, several UN organizations, global health advocates and AIDS support groups from around the world.
"We strongly believe that if properly implemented, this brave step will make a significant contribution toward ensuring a sustainable supply of affordable essential medicines in the developing world," an AIDS treatment group in South Africa said.
Murray Elston, president of the group representing Canadian brand-name companies, mainly subsidiaries of multinational pharmaceutical companies, said in the statement that Canadian legislation should be consistent with a World Trade Organization agreement on access to generic drugs reached in August.
That deal sought to meet the needs of developing countries ravaged by diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria while protecting the patent rights of brand-name companies that fund costly research into new medicines.
The brand-name industry "is working with the federal government to determine how the WTO decision can best be implemented, taking into account the current and future needs of developing countries, of Canada and of patients worldwide," Mr. Elston said in the statement.
The manufacturers have previously said they feared low-cost generics exported to poor countries would be smuggled back to Europe and North America, undercutting brand-name drugs and rendering patents worthless.
Last week, Harvey Bale, director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations in Geneva, said the Canadian initiative would erode patent protection and "won't solve a thing."
Still to be determined is the scope of patent exemptions in Ottawa's new legislation.
Speaking to reporters in Toronto yesterday, global health advocates hailed the initiative but warned against restricting exemptions to health emergencies or specific diseases.
"How many people would have to be sick or die before we call it an emergency?" asked Richard Elliott, director of policy and research for the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.
Exemptions should extend to drugs for cancer, diabetes, asthma and other conditions, Mr. Elliott said. "We can't deny affordable medicine to people because their disease or their health condition is not on the approved list of the Canadian government."
Advocates also called on Canada to help poor countries develop their own generic industries so they are not tied to Canadian imports forever.
"Full support is needed for manufacturing capacity in the developing world," said James Orbinski, former president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
According to UN estimates, nearly 30 million Africans had HIV/AIDS at the start of this year. Of the 4.1 million who could benefit from treatment with antiretroviral drugs, between 25,000 and 50,000 are receiving them.
Even if the Canadian initiative makes it easier to export cheap generics, those dealing with the African AIDS crisis still must find the money to pay for them.
The Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria has spent about $1.5-billion (U.S.) on AIDS programs but efforts to raise a further $3-billion are faltering.
Mr. Lewis has harshly criticized rich countries, which he says spend 600 times as much on defence as they do on AIDS in Africa every year.
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