Red tape cut on generic AIDS drugs

  • December 11, 2009
{mosimage}Adding Canadian-made generic drugs to the mix of affordable HIV and AIDS treatments could be good news for Africa, but it’s probably not enough to make a serious dent in the disease which kills more than two million people each year, says a Canadian Jesuit who works on AIDS in Africa.

“If Canadian sources are going to provide second-line generics at an affordable price — something few or no others are doing — it would be a reason for hope in Africa,” Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, executive director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network , told The Catholic Register in an e-mail, adding, however, that “Universal access to antiretrovirals (ARVs) is still a distant dream.”

On Dec. 3 Parliament voted 143 to 127 to cut the red tape and legal road blocks to Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime — an act passed in 2005 that was supposed to make it possible for Canadian generic drug makers to make cheaper versions of anti-AIDS drugs for poor countries, especially in Africa.

In the end the act made getting permission to make generic versions of patented antiretroviral drugs so complicated that only once has a country (Rwanda) been able to buy Canadian-made drugs from generic pharmaceutical giant Apotex Inc.

The new rules proposed under Bill C-393 promise to make it easier for generic drug makers to avoid legal pitfalls.

According to the United Nations AIDS agency, about 500,000 people with HIV were getting subsidized antiretroviral drugs this year, but another five million around the world don’t get treatment because neither they nor their country’s health systems can afford the drugs.

The drugs themselves are only part of the picture, said Czerny.

Jesuit Father Severin Mukoko reports to Czerny from the Democratic Republic of Congo that hospitals charge $50 for the medical tests necessary before drugs can be administered. This is in a country where gross domestic production per capita comes to $300 per year (the comparable number for Canada is $39,200) and household incomes for the Congo’s 1.1 million HIV-positive people is commonly below $2 a day.

“Sick people should have access not only to ARVs, but also to health services and to the entire public health infrastructure,” Mukoko wrote in a report to Czerny.

The most common problem African Jesuits report in their efforts to help people with HIV is lack of food. Poor people can’t afford enough nutritious food to allow them to take the drugs, said Czerny. Taking the powerful drugs on an empty stomach or on a diet of empty calories can actually accelerate a patient’s decline.

In 2005 the G8, including Canada, promised $60 billion to provide universal access to ARVs. The International AIDS Society earlier this year found that all the G8 countries, including Canada, had actually committed less than half the promised amount.

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