Documentary film explores what’s at stake in the war on drugs – generic drugs

Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and even a drug industry insider-whistleblower work to transform this documentary exploration of the complex politics of the pharmaceutical industry into something more like a murder mystery thriller.

Fire in the Blood will be screened Saturday, 7 pm, at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Avenue, Seattle, WA, 98122.

A prize-winning documentary film, Fire in the Blood, will be screened in Seattle this weekend to make the case that there is another war on drugs taking place across the planet – a still-raging war on generic drugs that began more than a decade ago over the price of AIDS medications.

Dylan-Mohan-Gray “We have a deeply flawed system of drug development and commercialization that affects everyone, including the United States,” the director of the film, Dylan Mohan Gray, told Humanosphere by Skype from his home in Mumbai, India. “This film, and this issue, is not just about AIDS. It’s about what’s undermining people’s access to medicines.”

Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and even a drug industry insider-whistleblower work to transform this documentary exploration of the complex politics of the pharmaceutical industry into something more like a murder mystery thriller.

James Love
James Love

Introducing the film will be James Love, director of a Washingon, D.C.-based health and human rights advocacy organization called Knowledge Ecology International. Love, who is featured in the film and has been featured over the years on these issues in Humanosphere, originally hails from Bellevue, where his father served as the city’s first mayor.

“I hope the film helps open people’s eyes to what’s going on,” Love said. The fight pitting drug industry profit margins against people’s access to medicines, he said, is being waged on many fronts today – but mostly behind the scenes.

Put simply, the drug industry makes most of its profits based on patented drugs they can sell for whatever this monopolized market can bear. It is no longer stunning for us to read about drug therapies that can cost something like $100,000 per individual. The pharmaceutical industry contends these prices are legitimate because of the financial risks they take in doing research and development. Others like Love contend the costs are unjustified, and inflating out of control.

More than a decade ago, millions were dying in poor countries – especially across sub-Saharan Africa – because a new class of anti-AIDS drugs were priced out of reach for most developed countries.

“The film tells the story of the ten to 12 million people who died unnecessarily, because of a deliberate policy promoted by Western governments and the pharmaceutical industry,” Gray said. “It wasn’t an unfortunate ‘perfect storm’ but rather a decision to let people die to protect the drug industry’s pricing system.”

A coalition of AIDS activists and others, outraged at this deadly injustice, began a campaign that eventually drew in powerful advocates like President Clinton. This helped promote the generic drug industry in India as the leading supplier today of inexpensive the anti-AIDS drugs – a market expansion that made possible initiatives like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria or Pepfar (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief launched by President George W. Bush).

Most people are probably unaware, as this Consumer Reports article noted, that something like 80 percent of all active ingredients in drugs used in the United States are made in other countries like India; and most drugs taken today are generics. The FDA operates globally, monitoring the production in other countries and sometimes finding quality or safety problems. But quality and safety problems are, of course, not unique to Indian drug manufacturers as we have seen with many recalled or problematic Big Pharma drugs as well.

“The film tells the story of the fight to gain access to these AIDS drugs, but that is just a departure point for the film,” Gray said. “This is still happening, with other drugs … I wanted to tell this story so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.”

The fight is not just for the benefit of the poor worldwide, he emphasized, though for them it’s sometimes a matter of life and death. Americans need to wake up to the fact that they are, on a pricing basis, perhaps the most abused by the current approach to drug pricing, patents and the push by Big Pharma against the generics industry in India, he said.

“Americans are really getting ripped off by this,” Gray said. Most consumers in the U.S., he contended, pay at least twice what Europeans or Canadians pay for drugs because of the American government’s collusion with the drug industry to protect their profit margins.

Few have yet paid much attention to the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, or the many different battles – either through patent law or the drumbeat of stories in the media warning of the risk of generic drugs – on this front. Gray says he hopes his film will help to stir up another movement, beyond just AIDS, that strikes a more equitable balance between public health and profits.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • স্মৃতিলেখা চক্রবর্ত্তী

    I can’t help but feel a little proud to be an Indian!