MPs vote in favour of drug bill

A bill designed to make it easier to export generic drugs to developing countries has passed the House of Commons after hip-hop star K'naan and international aid expert Stephen Lewis urged MPs to do "the right thing."

Bill designed to make it easier to export generic drugs to developing countries

Canadian musician K'naan attends an NDP caucus meeting in Ottawa on Wednesday. He was on Parliament Hill to support an NDP bill on generic drugs for the developing world. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)


  • Bill C-393 passes House, 172-111
  • Now goes to Senate
  • Bill would ease sale of generic drugs to developing world

A bill that would make it easier for Canada to export generic drugs to developing countries is moving to the Senate after MPs approved it Wednesday.

The House of Commons voted in favour of Bill C-393, which would amend Canada's access to medicines regime. It requires the support of the Senate before it will become law.

Earlier in the day, hip-hop star K'naan urged MPs to do "the right thing" and pass the law.

The musician was on Parliament Hill along with other advocates, including AIDS activist Stephen Lewis, to support to the proposed law.

K'naan, who flew to Ottawa from Los Angeles to help make the case for the NDP bill's passage, said humanitarian efforts are sometimes motivated by charity, sometimes by justice.

"I think this is a moment of justice," he told a news conference. "I do believe that if you are in the position to do something, to help someone, and you can, withholding that becomes a matter of injustice."

The private member's bill sponsored by the NDP has been working its way through Parliament for years.

The Somali-born K'naan, who moved to Canada as a teenager, gained international fame with his hit song Wavin Flag. An all-star version of the song helped raise money for Haiti relief.

Charity work

K'naan learned of the proposed drug legislation through his charity work and has been an advocate for its passage.

"This is a very good moment for Canada," he said. "This is a good moment for our members of Parliament. This is not just anything, this is the right thing and that's why I'm here. I'm here to lend my support to the right thing. It's a compelling case and it's a human thing."

Passing the legislation could be a "moment that defines who we are as a nation," K'naan said.

Under the current system, generic drug makers in Canada must obtain a special licence each time they want to sell a cheaper version of a patented drug to a developing country, and the licence is only valid for two years. They also have to pay royalties on the sales to the drug companies that hold the patents.

Health, humanitarian and other advocacy groups say the access regime is too complicated and is preventing life-saving HIV medicines and other drugs from getting to poor countries. They argue that organizations and generic drug manufacturers have given up on trying to work within the system.

'Dramatic impact'

The changes Bill C-393 makes include allowing generic drug companies to fill multiple orders of the same medication to different countries under one licence and to lift the time limit for the licence.

Lewis, the former leader of the Ontario NDP and former UN envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, said earlier in the day that passing the bill would have a "dramatic impact" on the international effort to fight the pandemic.

"It is a tremendous opportunity for Canada," he said. "If this legislation passes this evening, it will be a badge of honour for the members of Parliament. It will be a badge of honour for Canada."

Lewis also said the legislation is consistent with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's child and maternal health initiative. The last time it was put to a vote in the Commons, the bill passed 143-127. It was then sent to a parliamentary committee where the Liberals and Conservatives tried, unsuccessfully, to amend it.

Dr. James Orbinski, co-founder of the medical humanitarian organization Dignitas International, told the news conference there is no cost for this legislation and that all of the arguments put forward by those who oppose it have been debunked. He said it accords fully with international trade and health regulations and there is no legitimate reason to block or delay its passage.

"It will save millions of lives, not in some distant future but literally within the next year or two," he said.

Clement pans bill

However, Industry Minister Tony Clement told reporters Bill C-393 is "not helpful" and he does not support it for a number of reasons. 

He said he's concerned it serves the commercial purposes of generic drug companies rather than humanitarian purposes, and that developing countries aren't keen to seek medicines from Canada anyway, because generic drug prices are higher here than in other countries.

Clement wouldn't predict how the Conservative-dominated Senate would deal with the bill if it passes in the House. "There's a lot to go before this thing gets signed into law," he said.

Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said the argument about generic drug prices is the kind of "red herring" that has been promoted by brand name pharmaceutical companies that are opposed to Bill C-393.

Elliott said the brand name drug companies have lobbied hard against the bill and provided "misinformation" to MPs.

The Senate shouldn't have to conduct an exhaustive committee review again, he said.

"It's actually studied this. It's heard from witnesses, it has all of the opportunity at its disposal to make this bill move quickly in the Senate."