In the past few weeks, the avian flu virus has spread at a dizzying rate from Asia to Europe, making it only a matter of time until the virus jumps the pond and appears in Canada. Is the federal government prepared to face this potential threat? It hardly seems so, when we consider that Canada's antiviral drug stockpile is no larger than it was last year. The availability of the influenza drug treatment Tamiflu is so limited and the threat of avian flu so serious that, this past week, many countries have said they are considering producing generic versions of the drug without permission of the patent owner, Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche. This option of "compulsory licensing" is something Canada needs to seriously consider as well.
With growing fears of an influenza pandemic, Roche has been receiving order upon order for the Tamiflu treatment. Overwhelmed, the company has found itself facing a three-year production backlog as governments rush to order stockpiles. The Tamiflu treatment is expensive, and Roche has found its profits increasing exponentially. After making bags of money
off the drug, and with orders piling up,
the company still refuses to sublicense
Faced with an obstinate pharmaceutical company and a serious pandemic threat, many countries are now taking steps to begin manufacturing Tamiflu themselves under compulsory licensing practices. This is an approach that already has been used with antiviral treatments for HIV. When health risks are dire, as with the HIV pandemic, or the possibility of an influenza pandemic that could wipe out millions of people, there is no time for governments to engage in lengthy negotiations on sublicensing with patent owners. In at least one case with HIV drugs, once compulsory licensing began, pharmaceutical companies eventually agreed to sign formal agreements with governments. But unless faced with serious pressure, Big Pharma has little motivation to allow sublicensing.
Last weekend, Taiwan announced that it would begin manufacturing Tamiflu under compulsory licensing. India and Thailand are also considering this move and claim to have the capacity to quickly start the manufacturing process. These countries argue that they are on the front lines of battling avian influenza and cannot do it successfully without Tamiflu.
What such developing countries haven't been able to do without a regime of compulsory licensing arrangements, the United States has. The Americans recently announced that they had concluded a back-room deal with Roche allowing them to open a plant to manufacture Tamiflu in the U.S. at a location kept secret for security reasons. Why kept secret? Presumably, if its location were known, armed Americans would storm it in a panic once a pandemic started.
What about Canada? Experts believe our federal stockpile is small, although, interestingly, the federal government refuses to publicly state an exact figure. When combined with what individual provinces have on hand, experts in the field estimate that there is not enough Tamiflu in Canada to treat even 2 per cent of Canadians in the event of an outbreak.
Not only are Canadian stockpiles dangerously small, but Canada has also recently found itself without a domestic vaccine
In September, Big Pharma corporation GlaxoSmithKline bought out small Canadian IDBiomedical vaccine producers based in Vancouver. The repercussion of not having a Canadian-owned vaccine producer with the threat of an avian influenza pandemic hanging over our heads is worth worrying about. In the past, when outbreaks have happened, countries have put embargos on vaccine export. The Canadian government can't rely on anyone to sell us vaccines in the event of an outbreak. This makes it even more important that Canada have a strong antiviral stockpile of its own.
The government has dropped the ball on avian flu protection for Canadians. Not only do we not have sufficient stockpiles of antiviral drugs, but our nation no longer has any domestic vaccine producer. Other countries have made the decision that the avian flu threat is serious enough to warrant production of the only known drug treatment under compulsory licensing.
This is an option Canada should pursue
as well. Doing anything less could mean the deaths of millions more Canadians than necessary during a flu pandemic.
Ana Lukatela is a PhD candidate and research assistant specializing in economic security and democratization at the University of British Columbia.