“Fire in the Blood,” a 2013 Sundance Film Festival documentary has been described as a tale of “monopoly and malice, and crime of the century.”
The documentary shown at the film festival in Park City, Utah, “Fire in the Blood” examines how covetous greed and malice of Western pharmaceutical companies resulted in thousands of needless AIDS deaths in developing countries, destroying families and orphaning millions of young children.
Directed by Dylan Mohan Gray, the film has been described as a complex tale of “medicine, monopoly and malice.” It was shot in four countries and received funding from such notable figures as former U.S President Bill Clinton, South African social rights activist, Desmond Tutu, and former World Bank senior vice-president, Joseph Stiglitz.
The documentary details how major pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline, prevented the sale of cheaper generic AIDS drugs to the developing world in order to maintain domination of the drug market. Generic drugs drove the price of antivirals down and big pharmaceutical companies were not happy.
In 1995, legislation to further their cause was introduced. The Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) allowed pharmaceutical industries the right to patent their drugs. Thus, TRIPS stifled competition from companies that made generic drugs.
Further, starting in 2005, the World Trade Organization (WTO) countries have been required by TRIPS to comply with patent legislation, thus further complicating delivery of newer, more effective drugs to poor countries in a cost effective manner.
This result of TRIPS is that newer, more effective drugs are only available to wealthy countries. Poor countries are forced to wait until the drugs’ patents expires.
The ever-widening gap between the rich countries and poor countries in accessing treatment for AIDS has angered many people, who argue that it is immoral not to allow production of cheaper, generic drugs to save millions of lives in poor countries.
Africa most certainly continues to disproportionately bear the burden of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. According to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), a mere 11% of the world’s population lives in Africa. Yet approximately 67% of those living with HIV/AIDS are on the continent.
According to WHO, in 2008, there were 22.4 million people living with HIV and almost two million new infections. WHO estimates that 14 million children in African have been orphaned because of the scourge of AIDS.
Over the past decade a number of factors, including pressure from activists, and direct negotiations with pharmaceutical companies have all contributed to bring down the price of certain drugs to treat HIV and AIDS in developing countries.
However, problems of pricing and availability still persist. Not all drugs are accessible at affordable prices in poor countries. Many of the newer and more effective drugs are prevented from reaching these countries as WTO continues to block the importation of generic drugs in many countries because of the TRIPS Agreement.
As the film also makes it clear, this fight is by no means over. Although there were some remarkable victories in the past, there have also been serious setbacks. According to the film, the real battle for access to life-saving medicine is just beginning.
“Fire in the Blood” is more than a tale of monopoly and malice, and most likely one of the greatest crimes of the century. It is an expose of an industry less concerned with curing disease than placing profit at the top of their priority list.
By Perviz Walji