The new documentary, "Fire in the Blood," examines how millions have died from AIDS because big pharmaceutical companies and the United States have refused to allow developing nations to import life-saving generic drugs. The problem continues today as the World Trade Organization continues to block the importation of generic drugs in many countries because of a trade deal known as the TRIPS Agreement. We’re joined by the film’s director, Dylan Mohan Gray, and Ugandan AIDS doctor Peter Mugyenyi, who was arrested for trying to import generic drugs, and is recognized as one of the world’s foremost specialists and researchers in the field of HIV/AIDS. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. We had an extended break because we lost a link with the satellite. And I want to thank Jennifer Robinson for having joined us, a legal adviser to Julian Assange. As we turn now to another film about what some have described as the crime of the century. The new documentary, Fire in the Blood, explores how major pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline, as well as the United States, prevented tens of millions of people in the developing world from receiving affordable generic AIDS drugs. Millions died as a result. This is a part of the trailer of Fire in the Blood.
DR. PETER MUGYENYI: Over two million people were reported to have died in that year alone.
YUSUF HAMIED: The whole of Africa was being taken for a ride.
BILL CLINTON: It’s fine for people in rich countries to say this is what it ought to be. They don’t have to live in these little villages and watch people die like flies.
DR. PETER MUGYENYI: Where are the drugs? The drugs are where the disease is not.
DONALD McNEIL: "You fight our patent monopolies, we will make sure you die."
NELSON MANDELA: As long as drugs are not available to everybody, he will not take them.
JAMES LOVE: It was just kind of a crisis of humanity. People just weren’t really human for a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of Fire in the Blood, the film tracing how Big Pharma refused to allow countries to break patents and allow for the importation of cheap generic AIDS drugs. The problem continues today, as the World Trade Organization continues to block the importation of generic drugs in many countries because of a trade deal known as the TRIPS Agreement. Fire in the Blood just had its North American premiere here at the Sundance Film Festival.
For more, we’re joined by two guests: Dylan Mohan Gray, director of Fire in the Blood, based in Mumbai, India, and Dr. Peter Mugyenyi, a Ugandan AIDS doctor featured in the film, recognized as one of the world’s foremost specialists and researchers in the field of HIV/AIDS. He played a key role in founding Uganda’s HIV/AIDS Joint Clinical Research Centre, and is author of a new book, Genocide by Denial: How Profiteering from HIV/AIDS Killed Millions.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dylan, let’s begin with you, why you made this film.
DYLAN MOHAN GRAY: Well, basically, I think the story sort of came to me by accident, to be honest. I was working on a film in Sri Lanka in 2004, and I had a day off and just happened to read an article in The Economist, of all things, which—it struck me as very interesting, because it was about one of the characters in our film, Dr. Yusuf Hamied, who’s an Indian generic drug maker, and it was talking about how he was bringing in low-cost antiretroviral medications to Africa. Yet it seemed something interesting was going on beneath the surface. It seemed like this was obviously, you know, to my mind, a very good thing that he was doing, but they were going out of their way, I felt, to attack him, but it wasn’t clear why. So, it piqued my interest. And, you know, not long later, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Hamied. And through him, I met several of the other people that became contributors to the film.
And I used to be in the academic world, and, you know, the historian in me was just completely shocked and scandalized that, A, I didn’t know more about the story, and, B, that there was so little written about it or, you know, there were no comprehensive accounts of what had happened—you know, something that had killed 10, 12 million people, and it seemed to have happened almost without a record. So, you know, the impetus to make the film, primarily, was actually to create a record, a memorial and a chronicle of what happened. And as you say, I mean, we consider this to be the crime of the century.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Mugyenyi is featured in the film. And it’s an honor to have you here with us—
DR. PETER MUGYENYI: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: —before you head back home to Uganda, where you had been imprisoned, jailed, as you tried to bring generic drugs into Uganda, to get these drugs at a cheaper amount. Explain what Dr. Hamied did, this—I mean, what Cipla, the head of Cipla did, this drug company, how he challenged the rest of the world in saying he would cut the prices of AIDS drugs from—what was it? The amount that people would have to pay for the triple cocktail, before and after Hamied?
DR. PETER MUGYENYI: Well, there was a misinformation, worldwide misinformation, that AIDS drugs were too expensive to manufacture. The second misinformation that was there was that Africans would not be able to use these drugs, that it was impossible to use these drugs in the African condition. Dr. Hamied called the bluff of all of those who were propagating this false information that cost so many lives of people.
AMY GOODMAN: How?
DR. PETER MUGYENYI: Well, he just literally announced that it is not true that these drugs can only be manufactured at such an exorbitant cost. He demonstrated that they could be demonstrated at relatively affordable cost, which would save millions of lives because of affordability. So it was the issue of affordability and access where Hamied came in and acted.
AMY GOODMAN: So before him, drug companies were charging like $15,000 for a year for one patient to get a triple cocktail for the year. And he cut that price to less than a dollar a day? $15,000 to $350 for the year?
DR. PETER MUGYENYI: Yes, and that action was incredible. For the first time, millions of people who were dying stopped dying in Africa, because they started accessing life-saving drugs.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you end up in jail in Uganda?
DR. PETER MUGYENYI: Well, it was—I was arrested, but I was rescued because Uganda government was concerned about the plight of the citizens who were dying in such a big number. So an emergency meeting that rescued me from arrest took place in front of the government ministers, and at that meeting I made it clear: I said to the meeting that, "Look, your relatives are dying of AIDS. Your citizens are dying of AIDS. I’m a doctor working among the AIDS patients, and I have no tools to save my patients’ lives. All I have done is to import affordable drugs, which will increase access. These drugs are at the airport. They are under your care. You can block them from coming in, but as far as I’m concerned, I have done my job of bringing life-saving drugs to Uganda." And I think they understood. And every one of them had relatives who were suffering from AIDS, or at least a friend whom they knew who had died from AIDS. And so, this was—it was not very difficult to convince them that this action was necessary, and I needed to be out saving lives with drugs instead of being arrested.
AMY GOODMAN: Another of the heroes in the fight to bring life-saving drugs to HIV/AIDS patients is Zackie Achmat of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign. In 1999, Achmat, who is HIV-positive, went on a treatment strike in solidarity with others who couldn’t afford medication. He’s featured in Fire in the Blood.
ZAKIE ACHMAT: If my sisters or brothers or cousins had HIV or had AIDS and needed medicines, they wouldn’t have been able to get it. And I grew up in a house where your mom would say, "If all the kids can’t have chocolate, one is not going to have it."
NARRATOR: Having made up his mind, Zackie Achmat announced that he would boycott antiretrovirals until the South African government made them available to everyone.
AMY GOODMAN: Dylan Mohan Gray, talk about the significance of Zackie Achmat and what the whole issue of patents is about in these U.S. companies.
DYLAN MOHAN GRAY: Well, Zackie Achmat, as you said, is one of the great heroes of this story. And I think the boycott that he undertook, very much with a sort of a Gandhian impetus in mind, you know, it was a very deliberate action that he took. And as he says in the film, you know, he grew up in a family where his mother said, if one child couldn’t have chocolate, then none of the children were going to get it. And that’s a very simple way of looking at it, but that’s something I think we can all identify with. He grew up, you know, struggling against apartheid in South Africa, a very strong sense of solidarity with his fellow man. And, you know, he could easily have accessed the drugs, because he was an internationally known activist, but he said, "No, I’m not going to do it." And he came very close to death by taking that decision. And I think, you know, it had a very, very big impact on waking people, especially in the Western world, up to the reality of the situation in sub-Saharan Africa. So, you know, the gamble paid off, so to speak.
AMY GOODMAN: Say that last part.
DYLAN MOHAN GRAY: I said the gamble paid off. I feel like his gamble that he took—I mean, he risked his life—but in a sense, the gamble paid off, because the impact of what he did, you know, had repercussions throughout the world and woke a lot of people up to the situation of access to medicine in Africa.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain how the patents work.
DYLAN MOHAN GRAY: A patent is a government-granted monopoly or a grant of exclusivity which is given to companies, generally, or individuals, with the idea that by giving a period of the exclusivity, one would incentivize investment. So, what typically happens with pharmaceutical companies is they will purchase technology from others, whether it be universities or small biotech companies or other small innovative outfits, and they will then commercialize these products. And because they will have a monopoly for a period of time, usually a minimum of 20 years, they will be able to set the price at any level they wish. And we have the former vice president of Pfizer in our film, who says very openly the concept is to maximize revenue. It has nothing to do with the cost of research and development.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Mugyenyi, what needs to happen right now, in these last 30 seconds?
DR. PETER MUGYENYI: Well, what needs to happen is the realization that an inequitable, unethical situation exists with the related TRIPS Agreement, and that lives, millions of lives, are at stake unless this TRIPS Agreement and patents issue are addressed—not to hurt business, but to make sure that they do not hurt patients and result in a bloodbath, that we have seen in the case of HIV/AIDS.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Dr. Peter Mugyenyi from Uganda and Dylan Mohan Gray, director of the new film that has just premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival, Fire in the Blood.