Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Life-Saving Drugs - The Great Game

"Just as you cannot blame a dog for barking, companies cannot be blamed for seeking profits. The real villains here are governments and public servants who have betrayed public trust."

"Fire in the Blood" is one of the most thought-provoking documentaries I've seen in a long, long time.

It makes you question so many things that you always considered as self-evident truths: R&D costs big money; companies spend billions sifting through thousands of molecules to discover one that can be converted into a medicine or vaccine; Indian companies produce illegal, ineffective copies of patented drugs....and in 87 minutes you realize that all this while, you've been a naive, gullible idiot.

The award winning documentary is about the battle against the HIV-AIDS epidemic in Africa. It is about the role of small individuals and small third-world companies taking on the might of global pharma MNCs. Consider these timelines:
  • The first anti-retro viral (ARV) drug, AZT came out in 1963. It was released 1985, with a patent cover up to 2005. Just as the patent was expiring, Glaxo claimed that the drug was effective only in combination with another drug, and had the patent cover extended patent till 2017. In effect, patent protection for the same drug was stretched and "ever-greened" to 54 years!
  • 1996 - discovery of the triple ARV combo against HIV-AIDS. The drug cost $15,000 /patient/ year.
  • 2000 - Yusuf Hamied of Cipla offered to sell a generic of the triple-combo ARV for $800/year/patient; He offered free know-how to manufacturers in Third World Countries and offered the drug offered free to infected mothers. In response the pharma MNCs launched a massive publicity campaign maligning drugs from developing countries in general, and Cipla in particular.
  • In 2004, Cipla brought down the cost to $360/p/y and finally once country - Uganda - decided to take up the offer to save its people. By then over 10 million more people had died of AIDS.
 Fire in the Blood is also quite instructive about USA's amazing hypocrisy and double-standards when it comes to public access to life-saving drugs..

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