Mr. H. C. Harley (Halton):
Mr. Speaker, on rising for the first time to take part in a debate in this house I should like to preface my remarks by congratulating the Speaker and yourself on election to the offices you hold. The subject matter of this debate is one which is of special interest to me and because of the recent tragic happenings in the country I believe it is of interest to everyone in it.
I speak, of course, of the drug thalidomide and its consequences. First, I should like to place on record the schedule concerning thalidomide. Mine will be briefer than that given by the minister. This drug was developed in Germany and was first placed openly on the market there in 1957-I am reading from the Journal of Applied Therapeutics dated August, 1962. As the minister has told us, a 500-page report was placed before the food and drug directorate in November, 1960. In April, 1961, the drug was placed on the Canadian market, available on prescription from two to three drug firms.
Food and Drugs Act
In November, 1961, there were rumours that the drug was associated with adverse effects. On December 1, 1961, this was confirmed, and officials of the Department of National Health and Welfare were notified. The manufacturing companies involved wrote letters on December 4 and 5 to all the doctors in Canada informing them of the reports from Germany. Further material was available in March, 1962, and it was requested that the drug should be withdrawn from the market on March 2, 1962. On March 5, the companies confirmed to the department that this had been done. On April 10, 1962, Dr. Morrell circulated all the doctors asking them to destroy or return any supplies or samples that they might have on hand. In July of 1962, Dr. Morrell again wrote the doctors asking them to follow up any prescriptions they might have written to make sure that no portions of the drug were still in the homes of patients.
The tragic circumstances are well known. As can be seen, the drug was first suspected of causing congenital abnormalities in December, 1961. However, it was not withdrawn from the market until March 2, 1962, an interval of three months. This is the area in which the government's responsibility must lie. This drug was known to be suspect early in December, 1961 and warning records were sent out to physicians; yet its removal was not effected until March 2, 1962, and the drug was still available for use until that time. I was pleased to hear the minister say that to his knowledge only one case had arisen during that period. But we wonder how many prescriptions had been issued. How can we tell how much suffering has been caused as a result of this three months delay?
This drug was withdrawn from the market in Germany, where it was first made, on November 26, 1961. It was withdrawn from the market in England on December 2, 1961. It was withdrawn from the market in Canada, on March 2, 1962. Here, we note that the country which first used the drug withdrew it from the market on November 26, 1961. Where were our communications, the communications between those companies, one in Germany and one in Canada, to warn us of these dangers? More than three months were to pass between the withdrawal of this drug from the market in Germany and its withdrawal from the Canadian market-three months of wasted time during which it might have been the source of further suffering and anguish to parents of these babies. It is for this interval of time which was allowed to lapse that the government must assume full responsibility.
It is unfortunate that our communications with regard to these matters are not faster and more effective. It is unfortunate, also,
Food and Drugs Act
that taster action was not taken in Canada when the danger signals first appeared. We must strengthen our legislation in order that suspected drugs may be removed quickly from the market by the food and drug directorate. As separate clauses of the bill are debated we shall have amendments to propose in these respects.
As the minister has stated, new drugs are being placed on the market with great frequency. We all know that the Sabin oral vaccine against polio has been withdrawn, perhaps with undue haste. However, we must remember that in our efforts to protect the people of Canada we must not slow down drug developments or, perhaps, delay a major breakthrough in the treatment of presently incurable diseases such as cancer. The major question raised is: how can we prevent similar occurrences?
Having considered the hon. gentleman's proposals, we are in agreement in principle with the amendments put forward. However, there are several omissions. We see nothing here to give the food and drug directorate the necessary power to remove drugs rapidly from the market. Moreover, an obvious loophole was pointed out during the question period the other day. Then hon. members became aware that deadly jequirity beans were allowed to remain on the Canadian market because there was no authority to prevent their coming into the country. We should have such power. A situation in which a potential deadly poison, unlabelled, is allowed to remain on the market because we cannot prevent it, should never arise.
I should like to suggest very strongly to the minister that in view of the technical and professional background necessary to understand the complex problems brought up by these amendments, the bill should be referred to a committee, as provided in standing order 65, either to the banking and commerce committee or to a special committee. If this were done, expert witnesses could be called, including representatives of the food and drug directorate, and these could be examined by the committee in order to throw more light on the circumstances surrounding thalidomide with a view to preventing further such tragedies. If this matter were referred, as I suggest, to a committee, a more detailed examination of events might take place. In addition, the working of the directorate as well as the meaning and effect of the proposed amendments could be studied. Only in this way can we see whether the proposed amendments are suitable to do what they are intended to do.
We have every sympathy for the food and drug directorate. They are trying to do a very
large and important and life-saving job with a small staff and budget. We must do all we can to help them, to understand their problems and to provide them with legislation which will enable them to perform their necessary duties as efficiently and as quickly as possible. We must provide more staff for the work of the directorate. At the present time, no clinical testing is carried out by this body, and a decision in this regard is one which will have to be made in the future. At least, the department should play a more active part in the testing of new drugs. I suggest to the minister that he should consider placing a representative of the food and drug directorate as an observer in each of the drug firms, carrying out experiments in the use of new drugs. I am sure this could be arranged, and I am sure it would be welcomed by the drug firms themselves concerned. This person would be there as an observer to see that the work was carried out within the laws of the food and drug directorate. He would not interfere in any manner, but would be there as an observer rather than to partake in the experimentation. Again I would request the minister to refer this bill to a committee so that this aspect and all these other aspects can be studied.
I was interested to hear what the minister had to say about the drug lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, as it is commonly called. This drug was first used to produce mental diseases such as schizophrenia, and it was used in this manner to produce disease so that the people engaged in experimentation could try to find out more about the disease and how to treat it. At the present time this drug is being used in the treatment of alcoholism. I was very pleased to hear him say that there would still be a method by which these drugs could be used for experimental purposes, because there are many drugs available which are extremely dangerous but which, if taken properly and under the proper guidance, are very valuable. As an example, we all read in the newspapers about people taking what are referred to as "goof balls". We all know that this employs the use of barbiturates, one of the common drugs on the market, to produce the symptoms of alcoholism or related diseases. The minister has not suggested that we take barbiturates off the market; therefore I think we should be very careful, when we do take drugs off the market, to leave some method open by which they are still available for worth-while and experimental purposes.
In closing, Mr. Speaker, I should just like to ask the minister again to give very serious consideration to referring this matter to a special committee. This program which I have
outlined and talked about could cost the government a great deal of money. However, I do not think, and I think no Canadian would think, that the necessary moneys would be misspent in order to ensure that future generations of Canadians be of sound body and mind.
Topic: FOOD AND DRUGS ACT
Subtopic: AMENDMENTS RESPECTING CONTROL AND REGULATION OF CERTAIN DRUGS