films that make a difference
Every year, many new drugs come to market which offer hope to the sick and dying. They also bring billions of pounds into the coffers of the pharmaceutical industry, making Big Pharma the most profitable and powerful business on earth. Two years in the making, this film investigates just how far drug companies are prepared to go to get their drugs approved; what they will do to make sure they get the prices they want and what happens when profits are put before people.
One of the first steps in bringing a new drug to market is to test it on humans. Increasingly, these tests are taking place in the Third World, far from the scrutiny of European or US authorities. We travel to Africa to hear powerful evidence of how the world’s biggest drug company experimented on children without their parents’ knowledge or consent. Following the trials, the company has failed to produce a single consent form from more than 200 children that were treated. One father says, ‘They didn’t explain anything, they just said they wanted to help the children. They didn’t say anything about the medicine.’ So far one hundred sets of parents have stated they were not asked for consent. This is particularly disturbing given the side effects associated with the drug and the fact that the US Government later refused to licence it.
But it is not just in the Third World that ethics of drug testing are being called into question. In Canada, we meet a world expert in the blood disease thalassemia who was removed from the programme she ran at Toronto University and legally gagged from discussing her findings after she raised doubts about a drug she was testing. Although later reinstated, the experience made Dr Nancy Olivieri realise that hers was not an isolated incident. ‘I got possibly hundreds of letters from people who had been in similar situations’, she says. ‘They had been permanently fired or they’d lost the whole programme of medicine and had to move to another state or another country. They had been followed by private investigators looking into every single aspect of their personal and professional lives. They had been destroyed.’ More worryingly, as the drug was rushed to market, is the prospect that, as Dr Olivieri says, ‘There are many many children in Europe right now who because of that licensing are taking what I believe is a drug that is neither adequately effective in most patients, or safe.’
The problems don’t stop when a drug reaches the market. In South Korea, one leukaemia patients who risked his life testing a new drug, is now furious that he has been forced to sell his home to fund the treatment. As Health Economist James Love puts it, "The products are priced according to what its worth to someone to get access to the drug. If it saves your life - it’s certainly worth everything you have." But many simply don’t have enough money to pay for their drugs. When Yung started testing the new drug he had been given six months to live. Fourteen months later, Yung is still alive, but only able to afford the drug for another few months - something that he can’t bring himself to admit to his wife.
Big Pharma generally defends high prices for new drugs by saying that they have to cover the costs of researching and developing drugs, but in fact most new drugs launched are just slight variations of existing medicines, so-called me-toos. As Nathan Ford of Medecins Sans Frontiers points out, ‘At the moment we are getting more and more drugs of less and less use. Me-too drugs, the tenth headache pill, the fifteenth viagra - there are currently eight drugs in development at the moment for erectile dysfunction. Do we need eight more drugs for erectile dysfunction? I don’t think we do! Meanwhile diseases like malaria and tuberculosis - that kill six million people every year - are neglected.’
Finally, we got to Honduras, where we witness the brutal reality that is the consequence of Big Pharma’s pricing policies. We meet an AIDS activist who is being forced to break the law by illegally smuggling legal drugs across borders to try to save lives with cheaper generic medicines bought in neighbouring Guatemala. One of the people who would benefit from cheaper drugs is 12-year-old Jairo whose mother died from AIDS several years ago and who is now being looked after by his aunt, uncle and grandmother. But without drugs that are priced within the reach of ordinary people, the future of Jairo, and countless others, looks very bleak indeed.