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Tories chose patent protection over children’s lives in defeating drug bill: Stephen Lewis

A boy receives medication at Nkosi's Haven, south of Johannesburg November 25, 2011, which provides care for destitute HIV-positive mothers and their children, whether HIV-positive or not.

SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters

Proponents of an NDP bill crafted to fix Canada's flawed regime for sending cheap copies of life-saving drugs to poor countries say the Conservative government defeated the initiative because it did not want to be perceived as supporting the generic pharmaceutical industry.

When confronted in the House of Commons on Thursday about the government's decision to kill the proposed legislation, Industry Minister Christian Paradis said: "We know that that bill would not have improved the lot of the people that they (the New Democrats) claimed to help."

Conservative MPs previously told the House that the bill, sponsored by NDP MP Hélène Laverdière, could violate Canada's obligations under World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements - something that has been refuted by international legal experts.

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But Stephen Lewis, the former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, said the government's opposition to reforming Canada's Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR) actually stems from the amount of effort it is expending to write the extension of drug patents into free-trade deals.

"It's that they just don't want to be seen to be supporting generics when they are spending so much time negotiating extended protection for pharmaceutical patents," said Mr. Lewis. "So in the great choice in life, they have chosen patent protection over the lives of children. And that's about as perfidious as you can get as a government."

When asked if the trade negotiations played a part in the decision to defeat the bill, the government simply reiterated Mr. Paradis assertions that the measures contained in Bill C-398 would have been ineffective.

Mr. Lewis said he had been inundated with e-mails from Canadians who were outraged at the defeat of the proposed legislation. The access-to-medicines regime, which came into law in 2004 under a Liberal government, is so fraught with red tape that, in eight years, has been used to send just two batches of one generic drug to one country.

One of the groups that fought hardest to convince MPs to vote for Bill C-398 was the Grandmother's Advocacy Network (GRAN), a group of Canadian grandmothers helping grandmothers in sub-Saharan Africa who are caring for millions of AIDS-orphaned children.

Andrea Beal, a spokeswoman for GRAN, said the members are upset, disappointed and angry at the government for defeating the bill. But "we are not going to stop, of course. We can't stop," said Ms. Beal. "The grandmothers of sub-Saharan Africa can't stop."

Richard Elliott, the executive director, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said the bill would have passed if seven Conservatives who had recently promised their support, some as late as Wednesday, had not been absent or voted the other way.

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That includes Tories like Dean Allison, the MP for Niagara-West--Glanbrook. Mr. Allison co-hosted an event on Oct. 16 with Ms. Laverdière and Liberal Senator Mobina Jaffer to promote the bill but was not in his seat on Wednesday evening.

In the end, just seven Conservative MPs stood in support - James Bezan, Michael Chong, Terence Young, Mike Allen, Maurice Vellacott, Ben Lobb and David Wilks.

Liberal MPs Marc Garneau and Stéphane Dion, who had previously expressed reservations about the bill, voted in favour of it. But four other Liberals from Montreal - the hub of Canada's brand-name pharmaceutical industry - were not there including leadership candidate Justin Trudeau.

Mr. Elliott said the Conservative government has been talking about how much it cares about getting medicines to people in developing countries.

Canada has committed $450 million over three years to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Mr. Elliott said should be increased to 5 per cent of the $20 billion that is needed by the fund - or $1 billion. "Let's see them put their money were their mouth is."

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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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