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Conservatives defeat bill to ship generic drugs to the developing world

OTTAWA – The New Democrats’ efforts to help Canada send desperately needed medication overseas to people suffering with HIV/AIDS was defeated in the House of Commons Wednesday – an action some are calling a “travesty” and a “betrayal.”

“It is a travesty that the Harper government, having made much of its initiative on maternal and child health, would now turn its back on an opportunity to help people dying of treatable diseases,” Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal network said in a release.

“This is shamefully callous and a discriminatory double-standard for which those who can least afford it pay the ultimate price.”

Only seven Conservative MPs supported the private member’s bill, which went down in a close vote of 141 for and 148 against.

The private member’s bill was introduced with a goal of overhauling Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime – a law passed in 2004 that was supposed to help get Canadian generic medicines to developing countries, but turned out to be a dismal failure.

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New Democrat MP Helene Laverdiere, who has a long history in foreign services, sponsored the bill she said would unquestionably save lives.

“By voting against this bill, the Conservatives refused to put partisanship aside for the sake of saving lives,” she wrote in a statement following the vote on Bill C-398. “The New Democrats will continue to fight until Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime is reformed.”

This was the second time the NDP tried to amend the regime.

Laverdiere’s bill built on another from the last Parliament which passed the House of Commons in March 2011 with support from the entire NDP caucus, a majority of the Bloc Quebecois, and some Liberals and Conservatives.

To the dismay of its proponents, however, the bill died in the Senate a few weeks later when the government was defeated and the country was thrust into an election.

Laverdiere’s bill had gained the support of religious leaders, health and legal experts, the brand-name drug industry and international development organizations.
But the support from the Conservative benches wasn’t there.

In the vote on the previous iteration last March, 24 Conservative MPs supported the bill. Two of those are no longer sitting.

Wednesday night, only seven Conservative MPs supported Bill C-398, and at least 14 who supported its previous incarnation voted against it.

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“The Conservatives refused to listen to a majority of Canadians who support Bill C-398,” Laverdiere said. “In the last few weeks we witnessed a backroom campaign of misinformation coming from the Conservative leadership – misinformation that ultimately lead to tonight’s result.”

Earlier in the day, Industry Minister Christian Paradis had argued the proposed legislation wouldn’t accomplish what it set out to, and could even breach Canada’s World Trade Organization commitments.

“(The NDP’s) intentions may be good, but let’s be clear – this bill will not help the people it claims to help,” the minister said during Question Period.

“It won’t save any more lives, it won’t mean more medication will be delivered, and our government wants to tackle true challenges.”

Despite his opposition to the bill, the minister has said the government remains committed to helping in the global fight against diseases including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria through continued federal funding to global health initiatives.

Since Parliament unanimously passed the access-to-medicine law eight years ago, only one company has taken advantage of it, sending one shipment of one HIV/AIDS treatment to one country. But after wading through mountains of red tape to get that one batch to Rwanda, the company that made the shipment said it would not try again until the regime was reformed.

As it stands, the law requires a generic drug producer to have in hand a request from a country for a specific drug before it can begin negotiating a licence with the patent-holder.

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What Bill C-398 proposed was creating a single-licence scheme, allowing generic drug companies to apply once for permission to produce any quantity of a patented medicine to send to any eligible country, as laid out by the World Trade Organization, without ever having to re-apply.

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