A Sobering Look at the AIDS Crises and the Drug Companies Role in Alleviating It

Director: DYLAN MOHAN GRAY/2013

Fire in the Blood is a documentary that is narrated by William Hurt that documents the severity of the AIDS crises, especially in developing nations, and the complicity of the pharmaceutical companies in the preventable deaths to this disease.  Dylan Mohan Gray directs this film, which is his first full length film, with an astute eye for a story, weaving a compelling tale that would on the surface seem dry and uninteresting as a subject matter. Much of the film revolves around international patent law, but what draws you into the film isn’t this academic subject but the real life and death effects these laws have had on millions of people worldwide.

Pharmaceutical companies, the film asserts, are able through rigorous patent laws to maintain ultimate control of life-saving medications in many countries around the world that allow them to keep cheaper generic versions of the drugs out of these countries.  By denying these generic medications from entering the countries where they operate, they not only maintain their profitability, but it has the cumulative effect of denying the majority of the population in developing nations from accessing the drugs they need to survive.

Fire in the Blood traces the AIDS epidemic around the globe focusing mainly on several nations in Africa, as well as India.  Through compelling interviews of former Vice-Presidents in the Pharmaceutical industry, doctors, Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, AIDS activists in Africa, and even former President Bill Clinton, we are able to get a sense of the scope of the problem as well as the power of the pharmaceutical companies and their global lobby.

On a personal note, this film resonated with me a great deal having gone to Uganda in 2008 to speak in the schools in Kampala and surrounding districts regarding the AIDS crises and prevention strategies.

In the year 2000 (according to statistics presented in the film), only 8,000 Africans were on anti-retroviral drugs for AIDS due to the annual cost of these drugs being over $15,000 a year.  In South Africa, at the time, the average weekly salary was $68, and this is in the most developed nation on the African continent.

Through the effort of many doctors, activists, and organizations, a company in India that is responsible for making many of the generic brands we use here in America and in Western Europe, was able to do the unthinkable.  They agreed to pursue the production of the AIDS medications and anti-retroviral drugs as a humanitarian project.  Eventually getting the yearly cost down to $350 a year.  The only thing stopping them from getting the medication to the people who need it was the patents being held by the large pharmaceutical companies.  The rest of the film is the journey it took to allow for generics to enter the countries and help the people who need it most.  This includes President Bush’s historic 2003 announcement of the creation of PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief) and a $15 Billion commitment over 5 years as well the President Clinton Foundation’s ongoing efforts to help countries get these medications in spite of the industry’s fight to maintain control of distribution through patent laws.

Several moral dilemmas are presented to the viewer.  Namely, how do you balance the importance of patents and the right to intellectual property with the responsibility to not let it keep people from life saving treatments and stopping needless deaths?  What is a life worth?

Pharmaceutical companies are definitely the target here, but the film is balanced enough to state that these are private firms whose main fiscal responsibility is to their shareholders.  Despite this seemingly cold financial emphasis, they have contributed 12% of the research and development of the type of drugs that save lives, and not just for AIDS.  Since governments and public entities account for 84% of all research and development, however, the question is asked if they should have more influence than the private firms to offer these drugs to people in need for free, since the people in need are the very people who contribute the money for the research to begin with since it is publicly funded?

Ultimately, this film celebrates the lives who have been saved through these anti-retroviral drugs as well as the struggle that continues to this day.  As of 2012, drug companies continue to charge people in the west with AIDS $15,000 a year for the medication (unchanged from 2001), while the generic cost is somewhere near .40 cents a day.  This is beginning to become an issue for Americans who are seeing the price of all medications continue to rise.  Should patents continue to be enforced when the effect of their enforcement is the endangerment of human lives?

Fire in the Blood is screening at festivals and venues around the country currently and is being played at the Webster University Film Series in St. Louis, MO February 7-9, 2014.