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Clement takes aim at high costs of generics drugs

[PoliticsWatch updated 5:25 p.m. November 21, 2006]

OTTAWA  —  Health Minister Tony Clement told reporters in Ottawa Tuesday that issues surrounding two major pharmaceutical initiatives are still unresolved.  

The health minister said a review of the effectiveness of  Canada's Access to Medicines Regime is under way and that the cost of generic drugs in Canada must be examined under a National Pharmaceutical Strategy.

"Did you know that Canadians pay more on average for generic drugs than most other countries do?" Clement asked reporters on Parliament Hill. "Sometimes 15 to 25 per cent more. If we can get even a 10 or 15 or 20 per cent reduction in that amount, that's a whole lot more money available for provinces to pay for catastrophic drugs that are coming online."

The minister said before any money is committed to a national pharmaceutical strategy current costs must be examined. 

As PoliticsWatch first reported in July, internal documents showed that officials working on the national pharmaceutical strategy taskforce took aim at the price of generics in Canada.

For example, a May 2005 "conceptual paper" prepared for deputy health ministers explained that "the most significant problem for non-patented drugs ... is Canada's lack of international competitiveness on prices."  

The paper noted that Canada's generic drug prices are "significantly higher" than in other countries. The documents cited studies that showed when compared to Canada, generic costs ranged from 24 per cent lower in Germany to 68 per cent lower in New Zealand. 

Also,  Sheridan Scott, Canada's competition commissioner, said in September that the Competition Bureau is to conduct a "market study" of generic prices. 

She said recent studies finding "generic prices to be generally high in relation to comparator countries, suggest that the related Canadian markets may not be providing the benefits that they could."

This comes at the same time that Clement's department is examining ways to improve Canada's Access to Medicines Regime, which has failed to effectively deliver lower-cost generic drugs to developing countries. 

In two years since the law was passed, Canada has failed to deliver a single pill to any countries covered under the program.  

"It's clear to me that there has to be an improvement in the situation," Clement said on Tuesday in response to a question from PoliticsWatch. "How best to get there, I think, is open for discussion. The review that I said would be under way is under way."

Critics say industry legal wrangling and finger-pointing are in part responsible for the program's lack effectiveness.  

Apotex, Canada's leading generic drug manufacturer, has been approached by the aid group Medecins Sans Frontiers to create a cocktail anti-viral AIDS drug called Apo-triAvir. However, the company says legal disputes with patent holders are creating indefinite delays. 

Also, some point to the high costs of generic drugs in Canada as a stumbling block.  If developing countries want generic versions, they are likely to seek them out from countries with lower generic drug prices, such as India. 

Apotex recently opened a facility in Banglore, India, but a company spokesman told PoliticsWatch there are no plans to manufacture Apo-triAvire or any drug there. 

"99.5 per cent of what we manufacture we manufacture in Canada," said Elie Betito, director of public and government affairs for Apotex. 

Betito said Apotex's facility in India is a small "pilot plant" that conducts bio medical and clinical studies and "manufacturing, developing some of the final chemicals."

He said there are no plans for Apotex to step up production at that plant. 

"We're not at that stage. Those are just pilot plants they're tiny little things. We've got 5,000 employees and 21 facilities in Canada."

:  Related Links

> Clement says Canadians will be consulted on drug strategy 
> Canada's empty pledge to Africa
> Government task force looking at high cost of generic drugs in Canada 

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