The legislation makes Canada the first country to take concrete measures to implement a World Trade Organization agreement passed in August aimed at providing cheap drugs to developing countries struggling to cope with AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other epidemics.
“This is one of the most important steps Canada can take to advance global health and human rights, and we hope to see other G-8 countries following suit,” said Bill Graham, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs.
Under the bill, Canadian companies — typically generic drug manufacturers — would be allowed to sign contracts with poor countries to supply the drugs, although the brand-name patent holders would have 30 days to decide whether they want to fill the contracts themselves. Firms supplying the cheaper drugs would pay the patent holder a 2 percent royalty.
“These proposed legislative changes are broad, flexible and faithful to what WTO members have spent so long negotiating,” said Pierre Pettigrew, Canada’s minister for international trade.
The clause allowing patent holders to supply the drugs under terms negotiated by generic drug companies concerned Jim Keon, president of the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association. He said generic drug companies do not want to devote time to negotiating deals that end up only benefiting the brand name companies.
“If the brands want to reduce their prices for developing countries they should just do it. They shouldn’t be allowed to wait and see if a generic is going to produce it,” Keon said
One concern brand-name drug companies have had is that the discounted drugs could find their way back into North America. Pettigrew said the government would take steps to prevent that before going ahead with the plan.
“We will assure that there is no diversion or reimporting of these drugs back into Canada,” he said.
Dr. Robert Peterson, a senior official within Canada’s health department, told Reuters each pill would have some sort of marking identifying its destination.
Canada’s pharmaceutical industry expressed support for the bill in a statement released Thursday.
The humanitarian group Oxfam Canada said it welcomed the measure but was concerned by the list of 46 eligible drugs included in the bill.
“As new medicines become available, adding them to the list will become another hurdle poor countries will have to jump through,” said Pierre Veronneau, executive director of Oxfam Quebec.
Treating patients in Africa with cheaper versions of the HIV/AIDS drugs averages about $250 per person a year, compared with a cost per person of between $8,000 and $15,000 for brand-name treatment in North America, Canadian officials said.
Canada’s opposition party, Canadian Alliance, told the Online NewsHour that it had a “warm response” to the bill that was introduced.
Despite general support for the measure, the chaotic state of Canadian politics may delay the bill’s passage. Parliament is due to close next week to allow for the election of a new leader for the ruling Liberal Party, and the legislature may remain shut for several more weeks after the election.
Paul Martin, who will replace Jean Chretien as Canadian prime minister, has said he supports the bill.