A new documentary film opening in UK and Irish cinemas this week tells the story of what its makers call “the Crime of the Century” – how available low-cost antiretroviral medicine was blocked from reaching Africa and other parts of the global south in the years after 1996. The film signals the dangers of the increasingly-perilous outlook for access to essential medicine in developing countries.
Fresh from its much-talked-about premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, last month, Fire in the Blood opens at the Irish Film Institute (IFI) in Dublin and the Prince Charles Cinema in London later this week. The film will be released in cinemas across the UK on Monday 25th February. The film tells a harrowing story of inhumanity and heroism, with a highly compelling cast of characters. It details how it could come to pass that millions upon millions of people, primarily in Africa, were left to die horrible, painful deaths, while the drugs which could have saved them were being safely and cheaply produced and distributed just a short airplane ride away.
“I was curious to see what the reaction in the US would be”, says writer-director Dylan Mohan Gray. “So much indoctrination about the necessity of high drug prices has gone on there that the Big Pharma Research & Development (R&D) defence is very much a sacred cow… even those with profound reservations about how the industry behaves tend to grudgingly accept its validity. This is very easy for me to understand, since I was more or less that way myself when I began digging into all this.” Gray was, however, gratified to discover that the American audiences who waited in line to attend six sold-out screenings at Sundance had much the same reaction after seeing the film that he had had when he began to work on the story. “There is a very strong sense of betrayal when people find out what their governments have done in their name… and a very powerful conviction that the prevailing system of developing and commercialising medicine has to change”.
As the film points out, drug companies actually do very little basic research for drug discovery. “84% of drug discovery research is funded by government and public sources”, says Gray, citing the landmark work of Professor Donald Light, “Pharmaceutical companies fund just 12% of such research, while the lion’s share of their spending goes into marketing and administration.” These facts will come as little surprise to those familiar with the industry, but many have never really contemplated the repercussions of pricing essential medicines at levels only a tiny sliver of the world’s population can afford.
While the film tells the story of how multinational drug companies and the Western governments collaborated to keep low-cost generic AIDS drugs out of the hardest-hit countries at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic – at a cost of ten million or more lives – it also tells the fascinating story of the unlikely group of people which came together in order to try and break this blockade. Among this number were front-line doctors, HIV-positive activists, generic drugmakers, intellectual property specialists and individuals of global stature such as Desmond Tutu and Bill Clinton (both interviewed in the film). “That’s what really set this story apart for me”, says Gray. “It was a real-life David versus Goliath tale, full of incredibly interesting, daring, courageous mavericks who took on the world’s most powerful companies and governments to do what virtually everyone else at the time said was impossible (i.e. mass treatment of HIV/AIDS in Africa), and against all odds they won…”
While the inspirational story of how low-cost generic AIDS drugs, first and foremost from India, came to save millions upon millions of lives in Africa (and beyond) is at the heart of FIRE IN THE BLOOD, the film concludes on a distinctly alarming note. “The story this film tells was on the verge of being forgotten, something we can’t afford to let happen”, says Gray. The film details the tireless efforts of Western governments, working on behalf of industry, to impede and cut off supplies of affordable generic medicine from countries like India and Thailand to other parts of the global south, primarily by means of bi- and multilateral trade agreements which low- and middle-income countries are placed under enormous pressure to sign.
“The drug industry is stagnant, its pipeline is anemic and it has pinned all its future hopes on China and India”, notes Gray. “Almost all these companies are publicly-traded, which means their bosses have to keep turning profits quarter-by-quarter if they want to try and keep their jobs… as they see it, they simply can’t afford to take a humanitarian view on issues of access.” With the World Health Organisation having estimated that one-third of all deaths worldwide are attributable to treatable and preventable diseases, largely due to lack of access to medicine, the stakes could not be higher.
Meanwhile, for all its insistence that high prices are the only practical trade-off for an industry that spends so much money on R&D to find new and innovative medicines, Gray noted with a wry smile that the who’s who of senior pharma executives will be gathering in London for the industry’s can’t-miss event, the Pharma Summit, just a few days after FIRE IN THE BLOOD opens theatrically in the UK. “I was amused, but not surprised, to read that the theme of this year’s summit is Should pharma cut its losses and get out of R&D?”.
Araddhya Mehtta is a global heath campaigner for Oxfam GB.