Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Fire in the Blood

In "Fire in the Blood," director Dylan Mohan Gray does a thorough job of reporting on the confluence of events that caused so many in Africa to die needlessly of AIDS before obtaining relief.

The major pharmaceutical companies priced antiretroviral drugs at astronomical levels, making them unavailable to all but the wealthiest on the continent. (A top South African justice tells us they consumed fully one-third of his salary.) At the same time, Big Pharma used its political clout to prevent the importation of equally effective generic drugs, which were offered at one-fiftieth the cost of their branded counterparts. Was racism involved? Not on the industry's part; for them, it's supply and demand. But it's difficult to imagine the international community responding with such apathy were white folks in the developed world dying in such vast quantities.

The big break came, of all places, from the anthrax scare, which caused the U.S. government to declare a health emergency and threaten Bayer with the forfeiture of its Cipro patent if it did not immediately ramp up production of the drug. Bolstered by the work of activists, doctors, and the head of a generic drug maker who offered an AIDS cocktail for under a dollar a day, African countries followed suit, declaring a health emergency and allowing the importation of generics despite the threat of draconian foreign-aid reprisals. Gray goes on to show how Pharma retrenched, winning the passage of the so-called "TRIPS" rules that empower the WTO to preclude generics around the world. In other words, the next epidemic is going to be much harder to work around. "Fire in the Blood" becomes repetitive toward the end, and William Hurt's logy narration doesn't help, but this material is too powerful to miss.

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