“Fire in The Blood”: A Ghastly Patents Vs Patients War – for Pricing Freedom?

International award winning documentary film, ‘FIRE IN THE BLOOD’ could possibly set a raging fire in your blood too, just like mine. It made me SAD, REFLECTIVE and ANGRY, prompting to share ‘MY TAKE AWAYS’ with you on this contentious subject, immediately after I put across a brief perspective of this yet to be released film in India.

FIRE IN THE BLOOD is an intricate tale of ‘medicine, monopoly and malice’ and narrates how western pharmaceutical companies and governments aggressively blocked access to low-cost HIV/AIDS drugs in African countries post 1996, causing ten million or more avoidable deaths. Fortunately, in the midst of further disasters in the making, some brave-hearts  decided to fight back.

The film includes contributions from global icons, such as, Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu and Joseph Stieglitz and makes it clear that the real struggle of majority, out of over 7 billion global population, for access to life-saving affordable patented medicines is far from over. This film has been made by Dylan Mohan Gray and narrated by Academy Award winner, William Hurt.

Two trailers worth watching:

Please do not miss watching, at least, the trailer of this the sad and cruel movie by clicking on the link provided on the word ‘trailer’ above and also here. To get an independent perspective, please do watch the review of the film along with interesting interviews by clicking here.

(Disclaimer: I have no personal direct or even remotely indirect interest or involvement with this film.)

International newspaper reviews:

The NYT in its review commented as follows:

“The only reason we are dying is because we are poor.” That is the heartbreaking refrain heard twice in the documentary “Fire in the Blood,” about an urgent and shameful topic: the millions of Africans with AIDS who have died because they couldn’t afford the antiretroviral drugs that could have saved their lives. Former President Bill Clinton, the intellectual property lawyer James Love, the journalist Donald G. McNeil Jr. of The New York Times and others offer perspectives on this situation and also on the concern that pharmaceutical companies value profits over lives.

The Guardian reviewed the film as follows:

“A slightly dry, yet solid reportage on a humanitarian disgrace: the failure of western pharmaceutical companies to provide affordable drugs to patients in the developing world. As presented, the corporate defense sounds horribly racist: that poorer Africans’ inability to read packaging or tell the time leaves them ill-suited to following any medication program… hope emerges in the form of the Indian physicist Yusuf Hamied, whose company Cipla undertook in the noughties to produce cheap, generic drugs in defiance of the Pfizer patent lawyers.

MY TAKE AWAYS:

Discrimination between human lives?

Life, as we all have been experiencing, is the greatest miracle of the universe and most astonishing creation of the Almighty. Among all types of lives, the human lives indeed have been playing critical roles in the development and progress of humanity over many centuries. These lives irrespective of their financial status, cast, creed, color and other inequities need to be protected against diseases by all concerned and medicines help achieving this objective.

What’s the purpose of inventing medicines?

“The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer”, said the management guru of global repute,  Peter F. Drucker. What is then the purpose of inventing new medicines in today’s world of growing financial inequity? 

Further, in his well acclaimed book, “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits”, C.K. Prahalad, explained that the world’s over five billion poor make up the the fastest growing market in the world. Prahalad showed how this segment has vast untapped buying power, and represents an enormous potential for companies, who can learn how to serve this market by providing the poor with innovative products that they need. Do the Big Pharma players have any lesson to learn from this doctrine?

R&D is not free, has costs attached to it:

Medicines protect human lives against various types of diseases. Pharmaceutical companies surely play a critical role in this area, especially the innovator pharma players, by making such medicines available to patients.

These companies identify new products largely from academic institutions and various research labs, develop and bring them to the market. This has obviously a cost attached to it. Thus, R&D cannot be considered as free and the prices of patented products should not be equated with off-patent generic drugs. Innovators must be allowed to earn a decent return on their R&D investments to keep the process of innovation ongoing, though the details of such costs are not usually made available for scrutiny by the experts in this field

Discourage insatiable fetish for profiteering:

Respective governments must always keep a careful vigil to ensure that earning a decent profit does not transgress into a limitless fetish for profiteering, where majority of people across the world will have no other alternative but to succumb to diseases without having access to these innovative medicines. This situation is unfair, unjust and should not be allowed to continue.

Big Pharma – strongest propagators of innovation…bizarre?

It is indeed intriguing, when patients are the biggest beneficiaries of pharmaceutical innovations, why mostly the Big Pharma MNCs, their self-created bodies and cronies, continue to remain the most powerful votaries of most stringent IPR regime in a country, though always in the garb of ‘encouraging and protecting innovation’.

Thinking straight, who do they consider are really against innovation in India? None, in fact. Not even the Government. India has under its belt the credit of many pioneering innovations over the past centuries, may not be too many in the field of medicine post 2005, at least, not just yet. Do we remember the disruptive invention of ‘Zero’ by the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta (597–668 AD) or the amazing ‘Dabbawalas’ of Mumbai?  India experiences innovation daily, it has now started happening in the domestic pharma world too with the market launch of two new home grown inventions.

Coming back to the context, India, as I understand, has always been pro-innovation, in principle at least, but is squarely and fairly against obscene drug pricing, which denies access to especially newer drugs to majority of patients, in many occasions even resorting to frivolous innovations and evergreening of patents.

Mighty pharma MNCs are increasingly feeling uncomfortable with such strong stands being taken by a developing nation like India, in this regard. Thus, expensive and well orchestrated intense lobbying initiatives are being strategized to project India as an anti-innovation entity, while pharma MNCs, in general, are being highlighted as the sole savior for encouraging and protecting innovation in India. The whole concept is indeed bizarre, if not an open display of shallow and too much of self-serving mindset. 

This analysis appears more convincing, when genuine patients’ groups, instead of supporting the pharma MNCs in their so called ‘crusade’ for ‘innovation’, keep on vehemently protesting against obscene drug pricing, across the world. 

Obscene pricing overshadows the ‘patient centric’ facade:

Obscene pricing of patented medicines, in many cases, overshadows the façade of much hyped and overused argument that ‘innovation must be encouraged and protected for patients’ interest’. This self-created ‘patient centric’ facade must now be properly understood by all.

I reckon, India has now assumed a critical mass attaining a global stature. This will not allow any successive governments in the country to change the relevant laws of the land, wilting under intense pressure of global and local lobbying and expensive PR campaigns. 

Genuine innovation must be protected:

  • Genuine innovations, as explained in the Patents Act of India, must be encouraged and protected in the country, but not without sending a strong and clear signal for the need of responsible pricing.
  • It is also a fact, though some people may have different views, that Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) encourage innovation.
  • At the same time, the real cost of R&D must be made transparent by all innovators and available for scrutiny by the experts in this field to put all doubts to rest on the subject.

When Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is being widely discussed globally, which has now been made mandatory in India, these players keep arguing almost unequivocally that, thinking about ‘have nots’ is the sole responsibility of the Government.

Patents guarantee market exclusivity, NOT absolute pricing freedom:

Patent gives right to the innovators for 20 years market exclusivity, but NOT absolute pricing freedom in the absence of any significant market competition in that area.

Innovator companies do argue that patented products also compete in their respective therapeutic classes. This is indeed baloney. If patented products meet the unmet needs, how can it be ‘me too’ even in a therapy class? Unless of course, insatiated fetish of Big Pharma for market monopoly with free pricing even for ‘me too’ types of so called ‘innovative products’, becomes the key motive behind such an argument.

Who benefits more with patented medicines?

Who gets benefited more with these patented medicines? Certainly a small minority living in the developed world and NOT the vast majority of the developing world.

At the same time, huge profits earned by these companies from a small minority of these patients make them so rich and inexplicably arrogant that they do not bother at all for others without having adequate deep pockets, even in India. 

Conclusion:

I have a huge problem in accepting the pharma MNCs’ argument that ‘IPR’ and lack of ‘Access’ to IP protected drugs for ‘affordability’ reasons, are unrelated to each other. For heaven’s sake, how can they be?

As I said before, absolute pricing freedom for patented drugs is obscene, if not vulgar and must be curbed forthwith with the application of intelligent and well-balanced sensible minds and also in a way, which is just for all, both the innovators and the patients.

Big pharma MNCs can no longer afford to remain just as huge profit making entities, responsible only to their shareholders, shorn of societal needs for affordable medicines, required for around six out of over seven billion human lives of the world. 

Modern society, key opinion leaders and respective governments should not allow them to shirk their responsibility in this area any more, as we move on.

If not, will narratives like FIRE IN THE BLOOD, not keep us haunting again, again and again, on similar incidents taking place in some other countries, at some other time, involving extinction of millions of precious lives for not having access to affordable new drugs? They may be ‘have nots’, so what? 

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

 

 

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