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K'naan presses MPs to help world's poor as generic-drug vote looms

Somali-Canadian rapper K'naan performs at the United Nations' General Assembly on March 17, 2009.

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The proponents of a bill that aims to untangle the regime established to send cut-rate Canadian medicines to the world's poorest countries have some star power in their corner.

K'naan, the Juno Award-winning musician whose song Wavin' Flag was Coca Cola's anthem for the 2010 World Cup, will be on Parliament Hill on Wednesday to urge MPs to pass Bill C-393. He will be joined by Stephen Lewis, the former United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, and James Orbinski, the founder of Dignitas International, a medical humanitarian organization.

"I'm taking time away from recording my new album to support Bill C-393 to help get affordable, life-saving medicines to people who need them most. Growing up in Africa , I saw first hand the terrible consequences of diseases like AIDS, TB and malaria," K'naan said in an email to The Globe and Mail on Tuesday. "Canada has a real opportunity to make a difference in the world by passing Bill C-393, and I'm happy to be a part of this positive change."

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K'naan, a Somali-born Canadian citizen, has said Bill C-393l holds the power to save millions of lives. It has been before the House of Commons since 2009 and has nearly been scuttled on more than one occasion. But the final vote will be held Wednesday night and, if successful, another fight will begin in the Senate.

The Access to Medicines Regime was introduced by a former Liberal government as part of a pledge to help the poor of Africa. But it is so fraught with red tape that, in more than six years of existence, it has been used to send just two batches of one generic drug to one country.

The regime was established to allow generic manufacturers to copy brand-name medicines for distribution to places in the world that cannot afford them. It is a concept that was opposed from the outset by the brand-name pharmaceutical companies and the knots written into the original legislation have rendered it almost useless.

Bill C-393 aims to untie those strings and make affordable medicines available for people dying of treatable diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. But there are opponents - many Conservatives but also some Liberals - who say the bill would violate intellectual property rights.

When the bill went to a Commons committee this past fall, MPs who oppose it stripped out the section that would have allowed the generic manufacturers to use just one license to send multiple batches of drugs to different countries. That was restored last week - much to the relief of the bill's supporters - after the legislation was returned to the House of Commons for final debate.

Bill C-393 was introduced by now-retired MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis but was essentially orphaned when she left federal politics to take a run at the Winnipeg mayor's job. All bills need sponsors as they move through the various stages of debate and, if the Conservatives - who oppose the legislation - had refused to let it change hands, it eventually would have died.

NDP House Leader Libby Davies persuaded the other parties earlier this year to allow her NDP colleague Paul Dewar to be recognized as the bill's new sponsor, a move that kept it alive. On Wednesday the House will vote on a Bloc Quebecois amendment that would limit the life of the bill to 10 years. Then it will be put to the final question.

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The supporters of the bill point out that less than 15 per cent of the 780,000 children who need treatment for HIV/AIDS are on the necessary medicines and that high prices of medicines remains the biggest obstacle to patient access. Canada's largest generic drug company, Apotex, has promised to make a lower-cost children's version of a key AIDS drug for export if the Access to Medicines law is streamlined.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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