It’s a modern-day “genocide” that has since 1996 caused 10 million deaths — more than the Holocaust — and yet isn’t much talked or written about, says Irish-Punjabi filmmaker Dylan Mohan Gray about the subject of his debut documentary Fire in the Blood that released in India on October 11.
The film contends that through a system of patents and monopoly, Western pharmaceutical firms and governments, chiefly the US, thwarted the developing world’s access to low-cost AIDS drugs leading to unnecessary deaths. It also documents how a few activists fought back to stop what they call the “Crime of the Century”.
The claims are valid. While AIDS has gone from being a killer disease when it was first detected in 1986, to a treatable one due to antiretroviral (ARV) drugs that were available 1996 onwards, the number of AIDS-related deaths in Africa started declining only as late as 2007, according to a special UNAIDS report. This was because branded ARVs — costing around $15,000 per year for a patient at that time — were unaffordable for most people in Africa.
Gray first read about the issue in an article in The Economist in 2004. “It seemed to me that this was a huge story that hadn’t been given proper coverage,” he says. It’s the first Indian film to be selected in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Recently, it won the inaugural prize for Political Film at Filmfest Hamburg.
The film shows that due to “malicious and extortionate” practices of Western drugmakers — dubbed Big Pharma — cheaper, generic versions of life-saving medicines could not be manufactured for sale in developing countries.
Yusuf Hamied changed that in 2001. The chairman of Indian pharma company Cipla, who is featured in the film, revolutionised AIDS treatment with ARVs costing under $1 a day — 1/30th the price of Western treatments. And India became the pharmacy of the developing world. However, the “malicious” practices of Big Pharma are thriving. India has been able to hold out against such practices. But Gray warns that the Indian government is under immense pressure from the international pharma lobby. “If the proposed EU-India Free Trade Agreement is ratified, it would take away the authority of the Indian courts to rule against frivolous patents,” he says.
Perhaps, the reason this documentary might be most damning for Big Pharma is because it features Peter Rost, a former senior vice-president (marketing) at Pfizer, who had earlier served in senior management positions at two other drug companies, before turning whistleblower against business methods of the industry. “I have noticed that whenever he comes on screen, audiences are riveted,” Gray says. “That’s because he says things nobody else will.”
The documentary seems to be making some impact. “There are requests from the UK and European Parliaments and the Capitol in Washington DC; it may also get a viewing at the White House.”