FAYE LIPSON explores Fire in the Blood, a documentary exposing the corporate genocide of
Aids drug patenting
FIRE in the Blood is a work of quiet, dignified magnitude.
Shown at the finale of last weekend’s Centre for Investigative Journalism film festival at the University of Westminster, the 2013 documentary charts the rise of an alliance which saved unaccountable numbers of lives.
The tale of “medicine, monopoly and malice” exposes how Western governments acting on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry used drug patents to withhold cheap generic Aids treatments from Africa and the global South.
At least 10 million people with Aids are estimated to have died as a result of their actions in the gravest act of corporate genocide that the world has ever known.
Director Dylan Mohan Gray documents the efforts of a coalition of scientists, human rights activists, judges, religious figures and politicians to circumvent the murderous patent laws preventing medication from reaching the global poor.
Countries such as Thailand, Brazil and India manufactured generic pills in the face of threats and intimidation by the US, EU and other Western interests “because they had the temerity to put their people’s health ahead of corporate interest.”
Following the maxim of “show, don’t tell,” Mohan Gray eschews a polemical style in favour of a light directorial touch that allows the bleakness of the subject to speak for itself. Members of the alliance feature on the film, with outlooks ranging from mournfulness to defiance.
Chief among them is a member of South Africa’s governing ANC and iconoclast Zackie Achmat, whose principled personal boycott of antiretrovirals, which could so easily have proved fatal, lasted until the government implemented a state-funded HIV treatment programme.
Another key figure is Yusuf Hamied, head of generic drugmaker Cipla, whose dollar-a-day medication offer to developing countries in 2001 changed the Aids treatment discourse. The market value of the treatment at the time was $15,000 a year.
Drug patenting, so critical to the lives of millions, has barely permeated the public consciousness. Recent filmic retrospectives such as Pride (2014) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013) chart Western Aids sufferers’ relatively successful quests for wider acceptance and medical treatment, but the trajectory in Africa and the global South has hardly been examined at all.
Mohan Gray, who joined the festival for a Q&A session, is unequivocal on why this is so: “Changes in public opinion tend to flow from opinion leaders. In this case the opinion leaders have almost all been thoroughly co-opted by the money of the drug industry. That means academia, the media, doctors, pharmacists, NGOs.
“Big pharmaceuticals spend huge amounts of money on advertising in the US at a time when advertising spending has dropped. The media, reliant on advertising revenues, has a vested interest in not talking about it.
“Academic institutions get huge licence fees to conduct publicly funded research which is then licensed to the drug companies. Are they going to be inclined to bite the hand that feeds them? Not likely.”
The statistics are most striking when it comes to the US, where “big pharma is three times bigger as a lobbying group than big oil and the defence industry combined. That’s an astonishing amount of wealth and power.
They’ve got three full-time lobbyists for every single member of Congress sitting on their doorstep every single day making sure that the interests of these companies are being promoted.”
An argument often advanced in favour of medical patenting is that it protects drug firms’ earnings so that they can invest heavily in research and development (R&D) for the drugs of the future. Fire in the Blood debunks this theory, pointing out that big pharma’s spending on advertising far outstrips that on R&D — indeed, much medical research is publicly funded. In effect, the US pays twice for the same product.
Mohan Gray is moved to quiet fury by the status quo: “This is one of these bizarre situations where we see people on the right of the political spectrum arguing for a government-granted monopoly while the left side is banging the drum for free-market competition. It’s quite absurd in that sense.
“What we have are big companies with a business model of getting monopolies and extending them for as long as possible in order to maximise profit, which is clearly not in the public interest.”
Public interest is a mantra he returns to throughout the session, although he acknowledges that it rarely passes policy-makers’ lips.
“When you’re talking about intellectual property rights — copyright, trademark and patents — the idea isn’t that these are government grants of exclusivity rights intended to serve the public interest.
“The public interest is no longer of concern and those arguments have been flipped on their head. You also hear that these systems exist to reward the inventor. That is not their purpose. Their purpose is to serve the public interest.
“If you look at the overall context of this film, what it’s really about is the takeover of public policy by corporate interests.”
He continues: “As recently as 10 years ago, the term intellectual property was written in inverted commas. It was not so much part of the lexicon in the way that it is today. Now it’s taken as a given that our policy works in the corporate interest and this is one small aspect of that. Even in the two years since the film was completed, the situation is much much worse than it was. The trajectory is very negative.”
Complacency about corporate influence will, Mohan Gray believes, be the downfall of us all. While the great majority do not have Aids, almost all of us have used antibiotics. These are now threatened with rapid obsolescence by the increasing resistance of bacteria. Yet profit-driven drugs companies lack incentives to seek solutions.
“It’s a huge public health emergency that affects everyone in the world, rich or poor. The drugs companies are not interested because it’s not profitable enough. They want to make viagra, anti-cholesterol drugs, psychotropic and cancer drugs. That’s where the money lies.
“So there’s a pressing obvious public health emergency that is completely of no interest to the drug industry. Are we just going to let people die on mass? Probably to some degree, yes — until the public stands up and says this is ludicrous, this is completely unacceptable. And then it will have to be solved using public investment.”
And what does Mohan Gray himself believe in?
“I don’t think profit is bad per se, but I think the idea of for-profit medicine is deeply flawed.”
“I believe in a human right to health. I also believe in a commonwealth of knowledge. The developments we’ve talked about are additions to that commonwealth. Really, they belong to all of us.”
More information about the film and its screenings can be found at www.fireintheblood.com. The film can also be streamed at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/fireinblood
For more information on the Centre for Investigative Journalism visit www.tcij.org