Canada shrugged as the United Nations issued a plea this weekend for help for millions of people in Africa and other poor regions who are fighting AIDS with scant access to life-saving drugs.
Well, Canada didn’t shrug exactly.
It was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government that decided to usher in World AIDS Day on Saturday by killing a bid in Parliament to speed more low-cost drugs to the poorest countries. Bill C-398, put forward by New Democrat MP Hélène Laverdière, would have made it easier for our generic drug firms to copy patented AIDS drugs and sell them to poor countries at cut-rate prices, while paying royalties to the patent holders. A strong majority of Canadians favour such action.
But for years, the Harper government has trotted out one unpersuasive objection after another. They claimed it would violate our trade obligations, until international experts refuted them. Then they argued that it would hurt Big Pharma, until the major drug firms announced they wouldn’t object (subject to a few minor caveats). Then they argued that plenty of generics were available, although half the people who need them don’t get them. When all else failed, the Tories just flexed their majority Wednesday and killed the bill.
As Stephen Lewis, the UN’s former AIDS envoy, rightly observed, the Conservatives “have chosen patent protection over the lives of children.” Some 330,000 children were infected with HIV last year, 90 per cent in Africa. One in four will get treatment.