In a largely symbolic gesture, Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien on Thursday proposed a bill that would allow generic-drug makers to supply cheap copies of patented medicine to poor countries. The bill complies with a recent World Trade Organization agreement on helping the developing world get access to expensive medicines to treat HIV/AIDS and other catastrophic illnesses. Chretien, who will step down in the coming weeks after 10 years in power, introduced the measure on what was expected to be his last day in parliament.
The bill is certain to die when the current parliament session adjourns, perhaps as soon as Friday, as Canada prepares for the transition of power from the retiring Chretien to his certain successor, former finance minister Paul Martin. But Martin has said he supports the measure, and supporters believe it will be introduced again next year when a new parliament session begins under a Martin-led government.
The WTO deal, reached August 30, creates a legal loophole allowing the most desperate countries to override patents on expensive drugs and order cheaper copies from generic-drug manufacturers, with patent holders receiving a small payment. AIDS drugs are a particular concern because they are far too expensive for patients in Africa, where the disease rates are high. The average AIDS patient in the United States takes a combination of drugs that costs about $14,000 annually--far beyond the budgets of those living in developing countries. Generic versions of those drugs cost a fraction of that amount.