Canada must support developing countries’ access to affordable medicines: through Doha and domestic laws

Jim Keon, President of the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association
July 30, 2003

In the summer of 2000, Canadian generic pharmaceutical manufacturer Apotex offered to provide HIV/AIDS drugs to developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa at cost. Ultimately, it did not.

The reason?

The Canadian government, and specifically Canadian patent law, wouldn’t allow it.

As this week’s World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Montreal wind up, the Government of Canada should be taking a serious look at what it can, and should, be doing to help developing countries gain access to affordable, life-saving medicines: not only through international trade bodies, but with its own domestic laws as well.

Today, 20 years after HIV/AIDS was discovered and almost 15 years after antiretroviral drugs have become available, 26 million people – close to Canada’s total population - are dead from the disease, with the vast majority of casualties in the developing world.

With his African agenda, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has been a strong proponent of developed countries playing a more prominent role in taking steps to provide humanitarian and economic assistance to raise the standard of living and decrease human suffering in African countries. In fact, it is clear the Prime Minister feels this could be a key part in the legacy of his ten years in power.

Progress was made at the November 2001 international trade meetings in Doha, Qatar, when an agreement was reached to allow developing countries to import low-cost generic medicines in times of health emergencies, such as the current HIV/AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa.

Many of the countries stricken with diseases like HIV/AIDS do not have the domestic manufacturing capabilities to produce their own low-cost versions of needed pharmaceutical products. As part of the Doha Agreement, these countries would be allowed, in times of health crises, to import generic versions of patented medicines under a system of compulsory licensing.

Yet unfortunately, some western countries - where powerful, multi-national, brand-name pharmaceutical companies are based - are attempting to limit the diseases that can be covered by a Doha solution as well as the sources from which these medicines can be provided. This would leave developing countries with no alternative but to buy the expensive patented product, or simply do without.

Providing access to affordable drugs is a key part of any strategy for reversing the trend of high mortality and morbidity from HIV/AIDS and other diseases in developing countries. However, the failure of Canada and other developed countries to implement the Doha Agreement threatens to undermine access to life-saving medicines.

Given the tragic HIV/AIDS pandemic that is decimating large parts of the African continent, Canada has an opportunity, and some would argue a moral obligation, to take a leadership role in ensuring the successful implementation of the Doha Agreement’s provisions on access to affordable medicines.

In preparation for the September WTO meetings in Cancun, Mexico, the Canadian government, Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew, and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien should now take a strong, public stand in support of ensuring that the implementation of the Doha Agreement allows countries in need to import low-cost drugs from producers around the world.

But it can also help by taking much easier measures here at home that would help these countries import life-saving, affordable medicines. Currently, export restrictions under Canada’s Patent Act prohibit the production and export of products under Canadian patent protection, even if the product is not protected in the country where it is to be sold. But the government could amend the Patent Act to allow Canadian generic pharmaceutical companies to provide much-needed generic medicines to developing countries.

As Jean Chrétien enters the final months of his tenure as Prime Minister, it is hard to imagine a more important legacy for him to leave to Canadians and the world than that of a leader who fought to provide people dying of HIV/AIDS with access to the medicines they so desperately need.

Jim Keon is president of the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association and a Director of the International Generic Pharmaceutical Alliance.

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