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Holding Lives Hostage: The Cost of Drugs and Pharmaceutical Sponsorship

By Sunny Bjerk

July 25, 2012

Holding Lives Hostage: The Cost of Drugs and Pharmaceutical Sponsorship

In one of the more candid sessions at the International AIDS Conference, Michael Weinstein, President of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, opened the session "The AIDS Financial Crisis: Life or Death for Millions," by stating, "John C. Martin, the CEO of Gilead Sciences, made $50 million this year," a slightly higher figure than what Forbes reported for 2011. This number caused cries of outrage from the audience, echoing the passion and frustration demonstrated by the We Can End AIDS marchers during yesterday's mobilization.

According to Weinstein, over 44,000 people in the United States die each year directly due to their inability to afford health care, including HIV/AIDS medications. What's more, an estimated 41% of people in the United States are not receiving the HIV/AIDS medications or receiving the care they need because they simply cannot afford it.

Why? Because drug companies, including Gilead Sciences and Bristol-Myers Squibb -- both sponsors of this year's International AIDS Conference, ironically -- have thus far clung relentlessly to their drug branding and patents, effectively blocking PEPFAR from creating and distributing generic drugs that could save millions of lives worldwide.

And this, as protestors pointed out at yesterday's We Can End AIDS march, is criminal. Senator Bernie Sanders, who spoke very briefly at the panel, said, "One of the great moral issues of our day is that people are suffering or dying because they can't afford medicines that are produced for pennies. To me, this is the equivalent of seeing a child drowning in a pool and refusing to save that life." Senator Sanders -- the only Independent in the Senate -- noted that it costs an average of $25,000 per year for an individual to pay for HIV/AIDS medications. Yet, if these drugs were manufactured as generics, it would cost an individual a mere $200 per year for the exact same drug, a figure that even astonished his co-panelists. "This means," Senator Sanders said, "that if generic drugs were made available to those in the United States, the nearly $80 million that President Obama recently pledged to get the two-thousand people off of the ADAP waiting list would instead serve hundreds of thousands, if not more."

The poison, therefore, seems to reside in pharmaceutical patents and excessive profiteering. Matthew Kavanagh, Health GAP's Director of U.S. Policy and one of the lead activists at yesterday's mobilization, noted, "When we talk about ‘we can end AIDS,' we are talking about allocating resources that the government says we don't have. So I say, let's go to where the money is." Kavanagh advocated for a "half of a single percent" tax on financial transactions, a feat that he says is far more possible than political leaders and other naysayers claim. "If the government can figure out how to make every single tiny store in the United States implement a sales tax, then surely they can figure out how to tax Wall Street."

Still, there is still an enormously wide chasm that separates where we are in ending AIDS, and where we want to be in ending AIDS. Drug companies continue to raise prices amidst leaders pleas to lower them, and slashes to HIV/AIDS programs at the federal and state level continue to further disenfranchise those who are most needy and most vulnerable.

Yet what is perhaps most telling about the stalling in the ending of the AIDS epidemic is what you will see around the neck of every International AIDS Conference attendee -- a lanyard with the words "Bristol-Myers Squibb" printed on both sides, a major manufacturer of HIV/AIDS drugs and a company whose prices continue to rise and effectively put millions of lives in peril. We need to ask ourselves: what are the implications when a conference that brings together AIDS activists, advocates, and people living with the disease from across the globe, is also heavily sponsored by pharmaceutical companies? What are the literal and figurative implications when those most interested, most invested, and most passionate about ending AIDS, are wearing the branding of a pharmaceutical company, which represents public enemy number one for many of us?

Does it mean that to create change, we must work within the perimeters that are set and funded by those systems that we fight against? Or does it mean that we must reject, as many sex workers and intravenous drug users have done, a conference that has excluded many of our brethren and accepted funding from the companies that have continued to hold millions of lives hostage?

I can't say I have an answer to these questions. But until those in power begin to truly fund the ending of the AIDS epidemic, we will continue to be hosted by those companies that have demonstrated they do not have our best interests at heart.




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