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Media exposes the Global Fund for investigating drug thefts

So this seems like good example of how to make a story out of a non-story, and maybe inadvertently kill a few people in the bargain: Associated Press Exclusive — Millions in Malaria Drugs Stolen. The AP reports:

A global health fund believes millions of dollars worth of its donated malaria drugs have been stolen in recent years, vastly exceeding the levels of theft previously suspected, according to confidential documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The internal investigation by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria comes two months into a new anti-corruption program that the fund launched after an AP report detailing fraud in their grants attracted intense scrutiny from donors.

Sounds like some intrepid journalist has exposed that the Swiss-cheese-eating, wine-drinking bunch at the Global Fund needs to get its act together. Good thing the media is dogging it, eh?

Well, here’s a little background — an admittedly somewhat glib report I did on a similar episode in January 24, 2011: Global Fund Identifies Fraud, Media Has Learned!

I wrote that in response to the first story the AP did alleging “massive fraud” at the Global Fund, which was — like this week’s story — based on an anonymous tipster and leaked documents.

Circle of money” credit=”Flickr, by AMagill

In the first story, it turned out that it was the Global Fund itself that, months earlier, had announced it was investigating these allegations of fraud — which represent only about 0.3 percent of its total funding.

So now this week comes a story that looks pretty similar, claiming the Global Fund has allowed the theft of “millions of dollars” of malaria drugs.

It’s portrayed as a problem that was discovered thanks to the anti-corruption investigation launched by the AP’s earlier news story.

This misleading narrative and media self-congratulation is making my head hurt.

Now, you should know that the way it works in the media — especially given today’s online echo chamber — is that a story like this gets repeated over and republished by various news organizations usually without anyone double-checking the information. The AP, deservedly, has a good reputation and many organizations run their stories assuming they have been vetted and checked for reliability, context and fairness.

PBS Newshour, however, did its own story based on the AP story but didn’t really alter the story line. They did add this:

The news is the latest blow to the organization, which is the largest international funder of malaria and tuberculosis programs and one of the largest international funders of HIV services. Media reports earlier this year focused attention on several countries’ misuse of donated money, prompting the fund to launch an external review to evaluate its financial controls. Several European nations have suspended $180 million in donations to the fund while the review is ongoing. The United States is the single largest contributor, making up about one third of total commitments.

That’s why Humanosphere is raising questions not so much about the Global Fund but about the nature of the news reporting here. Such stories can have serious consequences, potentially depriving needy people of life-saving medications.

I may be missing some inside information here, but I can’t help but wonder why the AP seems to be trying to prove (contrary to the evidence I can see) that the Global Fund is poorly managed. And why do they keep taking credit for “revealing” problems the Global Fund has itself identified?

The wire story, further down, does add this qualifier:

But the fact that these revelations have come to light at all may be due to stricter self-policing and greater transparency at the Global Fund, compared with other aid organizations.

Yeah, maybe. But the way this story is written implies otherwise. So what the heck is going on?

I decided to contact Jon Liden, spokesman for the Global Fund.

Liden sounded like he was suffering from a bad case of déjà vu in that this story again came out after the Global Fund launched its investigation into the problem. He said he called the AP to try to get them to correct the serious misrepresentations and factual inaccuracies that seem aimed at sending the same message — that the Global Fund is a big fat waste of money.

The first version of the AP story yesterday reported it was “hundreds of millions of dollars” worth of drugs that had been stolen. This information was wildly incorrect, Liden said. He told the AP that the Global Fund had been looking into the possibility that anywhere from $1 to $2.5 million worth of malaria drugs had been stolen — out of a total of nearly $100 million worth of malaria medications sent to 13 poor countries.

“But even that amount is only a preliminary estimate,” said Liden. The investigation is still underway, he said.

More importantly, Liden noted, drug theft is hardly unique to the Global Fund. It’s a problem for any health system or organization delivering drugs anywhere in the world, he said, including in the U.S.

Nobody really knows how much is lost to theft in many of these poor countries due to their lack of regulatory infrastructure, Liden said, which is why the Global Fund months ago announced it was taking the lead in trying to at least better identify the problem of drug theft.

“I tried to explain that to the reporter,” Liden said. “This is a problem for everyone and we’ve been trying to get everyone involved to better identify the extent of the problem and figure out how to prevent it.”

As this recent article in Fortune magazine notes, anywhere from $8 to $12 billion (that’s with a “b”) is lost to drug theft in the U.S. alone. This op-ed from the New York Times estimates that the “average” instance of drug theft in the U.S. is $4 million dollars and that the problem is rapidly getting worse here.

So it’s no surprise this problem would also exist in poor countries where medications are valuable commodities.

What’s surprising, and disappointing, Liden said, is the singular and distorted focus on the Global Fund that appears intended to show the initiative is poorly managed. He said he is not saying the AP has such an agenda, but he said the sources the news organization relies upon certainly do.

All the evidence, Liden contends, shows that this ambitious global initiative launched to provide poor people with live-saving treatments and preventive measures is doing more than most aid organizations to raise awareness of the problems of theft and fraud while also improving its internal regulatory policies.

“This just feels like more shooting at the messenger,” says Liden.


About Author

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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.