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FDL Movie Night: Fire in the Blood

Fire in the Blood, written and directed by tonight’s guest Dylan Mohan Gray, takes a hard look at the politics of prescription drugs, specifically anti-retrovirals (ARVs), the lifesaving “Lazarus drugs” that can save the lives of millions infected with the HIV virus. But up until 2003 these drugs were not available to the majority of the world’s  HIV+ population, the hundreds of millions of black and brown people who live in the southern half of the globe.

By the year 2000 over two-thirds of the world’s HIV cases were on the African continent where less than 1% of the world’s prescription drugs were sold (the US is the world’s largest consumer of Rx drugs). There was no interest in selling any branded drugs in African nations, let alone the highly profitable ARVs. Shockingly, the reason given for not supplying anti-retrovirals to people in southern hemisphere nations was that they were unable to be responsible and take the drugs on schedule because they were illiterate, didn’t have clocks or watches, and told time by the sun–what a load of colonial b.s.!

Gray follows the money straight back to Big Pharma and their fight to prevent inexpensive generic ARVs from being manufactured and sold in Third World countries. Along the way he indicts the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the US and European governments for complicity with the powerful pharmaceutical lobby, and documents how AIDS activist groups and government bodies ignored the plight of Africa.

But in these southern hemisphere nations, activists emerged: South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat decided he would boycott anti-retroviral drugs until the South African government made them available to everyone who needed them.  Bishop Desmond Tutu lobbies for HIV/AIDS funding and care. Low-cost ARVs come through the pipeline with the help of  William F. “Bill” Haddad, dubbed the father of the American Generic Drug Movement and a founder of the Peace Corps, and the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) poverty program under President John F. Kennedy. Haddad then enlists the aid of Yusuf Hamied, whose father, a compatriot of Gandhi, founded the pharmaceutical manufacturer Cipla.

In the last century Big Pharma feared generics would undermine their profit margin–and the sales and marketing departments which receive a huge chunk of sales revenue (on average 1.3% of pharmaceutical sales revenue is put back into basic research for drug discovery, while 84% of new drug R&D comes from government and public funding) launched a massive attack on generics, claiming they were tainted, unsanitary and not as effective as branded drugs. New York Times reporter Donald McNeil learned quite the opposite visiting the Cipla factory, which provided raw materials and manufactured generics for the American and European markets.

Yusuf Hamied makes an offer to the European Commission in Brussels: He will offer generic ARVs to any Third World Country at cost, and share the technology for manufacturing for free. The offer is rejected, but he comes back with an even more astounding offer: He will take out his company’s overhead out of the equation, lowering the cost of saving lives to a dollar a day per patient.

Meanwhile, in Uganda, Dr Peter Mugyenyi, head of Africa’s largest HIV treatment and research center is arrested at Entebbe airport for attempting to smuggle in generic anti-retrovirals. Uganda, like other countries, was facing pressure from Western governments to enforce patent law and keep lifesaving medication out of the hands of  patients.  The Ugandian government eventually relents and the ARV pipeline opens in Uganda.

And while George W. Bush pledges $50 million dollars for HIV/AIDS treatment in Africa, Big Pharma steps in and says those drugs must be in the form of branded, not generic, medications, a move that would quickly deplete the aid fund. Former President Bill Clinton, whose interview with Gray appears in Fire in the Blood, galvanizes his foundation to supply generic medication for HIV patients. The Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative (CHAI, now called the Clinton Health Access Initiative) is established to procure the lowest cost ARVs for the greatest number.

The changes in patients’ lives is dramatic. On ARVs, Khundrakpam Pradip Kumar Singh regains his strength and places in the Mr. India bodybuilding championship. In Uganda, Lisa goes from being a skeletal child to a beautiful young teenager.

But the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) now threatens to cut off access for new drugs to developing nations as well as  providing low cost prescriptions for citizens of Western nations, and the real fight for access to lifesaving medicine is really just beginning. Roughly one-third of all deaths worldwide in any given year are attributable to treatable and preventable diseases, mainly due to lack of access to medicine. With a rise in Hepatitis C infections, and the ongoing battle against malaria, cancer and other diseases, affordable drugs should be a reality for everyone. The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated upwards of 18 million lives are unnecessarily lost every year. This number promises to rise dramatically as the supply of affordable drugs from India and other key countries in the global south is progressively cut off by American- and European-sponsored trade measures.

Through interviews with key figures in the battle for ARVs, including activists, politicians, intellectual property experts, and patients, Fire in the Blood makes a compelling case for access to medication through both direct action and policy changes, while showing the profit-geared businesses’ utter disregard for the lives of tens of millions of human beings.

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.