Canada blocks access to cheap medicines

November 8, 2001

Canada could find itself in a very embarrassing position at the WTO meetings in Qatar this weekend. We could be one of just five countries in the world opposing a declaration that ensures access to essential medicines for millions of people.

The World Trade Organization enforces the monopoly rights of international drug companies by giving them 20 years of legally binding patent protection. When countries like South Africa turn to cheaper, generic versions of medicines to treat their AIDS epidemics, drug companies constantly threaten them with WTO challenges. A consortium of pharmaceutical companies actually filed a lawsuit against South Africa even while it was struggling to cope with an epidemic that will kill an estimated seven million people in the country.

African nations are making a very modest proposal at the Qatar meeting. Their declaration states nothing in WTO rules on patents should prevent Member countries from "taking measures to protect public health." To our shame as a nation, Canada has joined with the US, Australia, Japan and Switzerland in promising to block the African initiative. At the same time our trade minister is making grand speeches about how globalization must be made to work for developing countries.

Because it can only be passed by a unanimous vote, Canada's opposition will help kill the African declaration. That will also ultimately kill millions of people in developing countries around the world.

Despite mounting evidence that WTO patent rules are used repeatedly as threats to keep countries from providing access to essential medicines, Canadian trade officials say these rules are flexible enough to protect public health. But Canada's own experience proves otherwise. When our own generic drug legislation was challenged, we argued before a dispute panel that the WTO agreement on patents was never intended to - and I quote - "unduly prejudice the vital public interest."

That agreement was supposed to balance the protection of trade interests against the public need for affordable medicines. But the panel of trade lawyers rejected Canada's argument and ruled we had violated patent rules. Partly as a result, drug costs are the fastest growing portion of our health care budget. And now Canada has not only given up the fight - it is complicit in enforcing a protection racket for some of the world's most powerful corporations.

Slowly but inexorably, Canada is losing dozens of cherished public policies along with its reputation for fairness among third world countries. This is not happening not through the normal and transparent pubic policy process. It is happening through the back door of a virtually uncontested free trade imperative. Trade bureaucrats and their servile political masters are transforming our country without our authority or even our knowledge. It is time we stopped them.

Murray Dobbin is a columnist and commentator, the author of several best-selling books, and a member of the CCPA's Board of Directors.