SAM WOOD reports on a campaign that confronts big pharmaceutical companies about their rip-off prices
With over 100,000 people living with HIV in Britain today and 160,000 living with Hepatitis C, you would think that it would be a governmental and pharmaceutical priority to facilitate affordable medication, not only to treat the existing patients, but also to prevent further incidences of the diseases occurring.
Why then, with numerous medications, clinically tested in Britain and approved by the US and other nations, do pharmaceutical companies continue to drag their feet and deceive the public about how affordable healthcare can be?
On April 1, activists and campaigners on five different continents fought back against corruption and greed in the pharmaceutical industry and staged a truly international protest.
The London wing of the action saw naked activists from Act Up London standing in the lobby of the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, displaying the slogan “Pharma Greed Kills” painted on their bodies, the streets were blocked with men and women shouting: “£35k is not OK” in a reference to the extortionate price set for Sovaldi, one of the drugs Gilead Sciences currently has a monopoly over.
Under the current pricing structure, a 12-week course of the medication, which can cure Hep C, will set the NHS back £35,000 per patient and for those that require the full 24-week course this figure is £70,000. This is a staggering overestimate of the actual price at which the medication can be developed and manufactured at a profit, as has been shown in countries like India, so in order to effectively treat all the instances of this illness in Britain, the NHS would have a bill of just over £1 billion.
Duncan Hamilton from C Positively said: “As someone who had to go through interferon treatment because of the British government and Gilead being unable to negotiate a reasonable price for Harvoni — another Gilead drug for the treatment of Hep C — I have suffered first hand for this sort of disagreement. This is people’s health you’re holding to ransom and the prices Gilead have agreed with the government means that Hep C won’t be eradicated in Britain or anywhere else any time soon unless pharmaceutical companies take the moral high ground and put lives before profit.”
With the state of austerity being what it is pharmaceutical companies like Gilead Sciences have the ideal opportunity to exploit the weaknesses of the NHS. Companies buy off swathes of the institution as it is gradually privatised. This is something the current government, in its corporate friendly austerity drive, is happy to allow, in the meantime the taxpayer loses out once more, as monopolies on patents that can last 20 years make it impossible for the NHS and the taxpayer to access medication at a reasonable, ethical price.
Jake Chambers, Act Up London said: “We stand here naked, completely vulnerable, a state in which the current system leaves millions around the world. We also stand with bareness and honesty and we demand that drug companies be exposed in the same way.”
The actions on April 1 signify a need for real, institutional change at a corporate and governmental level. At any given time, about half of all people in Britain are on prescription medication — 90 per cent of these prescriptions are for “branded” medication, the bill for which is a painful £5.8bn.
The NHS is not allowed to produce patent drugs itself or source generic versions from other suppliers. Dani Singer from Act Up London said: “The NHS is obliged to pay the exorbitant prices set by an oligarchy of pharmaceutical giants. The public won’t be taken for fools by big pharma anymore.
“Globally, more than 2 billion people do not have regular access to the critical medicines they need. This is one in three of the world’s population. Every year, 10 million people die from diseases because drug pricing blocks access to effective treatments. One reason for this is the high cost of medicines under patent protection.”
Aids activist groups and other campaigners have been battling against the greed of pharmaceutical giants and the inaction of callous governments since the height of the Aids crisis. It was not until 1986, after tens of thousands of deaths from Aids, that the most powerful man on earth at the time, Ronald Reagan, even uttered the word Aids.
The problem being addressed by groups today is the same — it is about visibility, and with that visibility comes the power to effect change, on a social, political and economic level. It is time for the government to take real action to incentivise the research and manufacture of affordable drugs on a global scale and end the crippling patent laws that prevent other companies from offering a reasonable alternative for desperate people.
In the words of one anonymous campaigner during the Aids crisis that by 1986 had killed 24,559 people in the US alone: “We started out just to find out who was supposed to be dealing with the problems. Then we realised none was: It would have to be us.”
We need to take action now, to save the lives of people all over the world living with disease and inequality, and to save out NHS from the hands of big business, putting profit before humanity.