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Bureaucrats can't explain why drugs not getting to Africa 

[PoliticsWatch updated 7:00 p.m. April 16, 2007]

OTTAWA  — Bureaucrats from four government departments were grilled by MPs at a Commons committee on Monday afternoon but could not offer any overriding explanation for why a Canadian law designed to send cheaper generic versions of drugs to the developing world has failed.       
 
The Commons industry committee began hearings Monday which are expected to be watched closely by foreign aid groups and Canadian drug companies. 

Canada's Access to Medicines Regime, a program that allows generic drug companies in Canada to sell drugs currently under patent protection to developing nations, has failed to send a single drug to a developing nation since it became law in 2004. 
 
Much of Monday's committee hearings focused on whether Canada had been as proactive as it could be in promoting the law. 

Health Minister Tony Clement recently said that during a trip earlier this year to Africa his counterparts in Tanzania and Kenya were unaware of the law. "Neither of them have heard about it," he said. 

The president of Liberia and the president of UNICEF Canada both seemed unaware of the program. was unaware of the program as well when asked about it by PoliticsWatch while in Ottawa last month. 

But the bureaucrats reassured the committee that they had been conducting outreach with their colleagues in developing nation at international meetings. 

Health Canada said in a written response to PoliticsWatch on Monday that it had made "numerous efforts to raise public awareness" about the program internationally at international forums on "building the regulatory capacity
in developing countries."

Specifically Health Canada noted that it launched a Website and developed a CD-Rom in July of 2006, more than two years after the program became law. 

"It's pathetic," NDP MP Brian Masse told PoliticsWatch after being shown Health Canada's written response.

"The reason they're not promoting it is because they know it's a flawed program that was implemented and doesn't work and that's part of the reason why there hasn't been the will to move the instruments of the government and bureaucracy to fulfill the mandate of the bill."

At the committee hearings, Independent MP Andre Arthur ridiculed the witnesses for their failure to get a single pill to a developing country and accused them of "travelling here and there" and getting no results. 

"I'm trying to understand what will it take for you to admit that your project is a miserable failure?" Arthur asked. 

When an Industry Canada official said he didn't know how to answer that question, Arthur made light of the bill originally being named the Jean Chretien Pledge to Africa Act. 

"I understand you don't know how to answer. You are faithful bureaucrats. There was a prime minister at the end of a regime who went to Africa to be applauded and everyone in the House voted unanimously for a bill that cannot work either here or abroad."

However, the bureaucrats told the committee that Canada was not alone in its failure to get cheaper generic versions of patented drugs to the developing world. 

When you include the European Union, over 30 countries around the world have introduced similar legislation since 2003, including India and China. 

"We're all in sort of the same boat," said Douglas Clark, director of patent policy for Industry Canada. "Nobody is any closer to having a pill exported tomorrow than Canada is."

The committee heard that there have been two attempts by two different Canadian drug companies to create generic versions of patented drugs since the law was introduced. One is an AIDS cocktail that Apotex wants to deliver, the other is from a company that Health Canada is keeping confidential. 

Apotex has blamed regulatory hurdles in the legislation for their inability to get their drug to the developing world. 

But the Industry Canada official said he did not think the legal hurdles were the problem. 

"We're talking here about some of the most sophisticated, smartest, legal entities out there," Clark said of the generic drug companies. "The regulatory burdens that generic drug companies face in trying to get onto the domestic market is far in excess of the regulatory steps they have to go through here.

"If you told a generic company they had to get a man on Mars to get the first generic version of a blockbuster drug, they'd have a guy there in six months. I don't find that objection credible."

Liberal MP Gerry Byrne expressed concern about the overall objectives of the program not being met and suggested that perhaps the legislation could bypassed and CIDA could simply buy the drugs and ship them to the developing countries. 

But Clark said Canada had to be careful not to be too "paternalistic" when dealing with developing countries. 

"If you provide funding to these countries you should enable them to determine where best to source these drugs. If the generic versions of these patented drugs are much cheaper in India, why on earth would you insist on them spending the money you give them in Canada?"

The committee will continue its hearings on Wednesday when Stephen Lewis and representatives from other international development agencies appear. 

: Related Links

> Canadian generic drug prices too high to help Africa- Clement

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