Indian documentary takes on Western drugmakers

MUMBAI (AFP) - The director of an award-winning documentary on the battle over the patenting of AIDS drugs says he wanted to highlight a "scam" responsible for the deaths of millions in the developing world.

"Fire in the Blood", which opens in India on Friday, looks at the deaths of millions in Africa and developing nations elsewhere in the late 1990s, when the monopolies and pricing practices of Western pharmaceutical companies denied patients access to low-cost AIDS drugs.

Indian-Irish director Dylan Mohan Gray, who is based in Mumbai, describes his film as "a political story about a scam and a crime".

"For me, it's not about the pharmaceutical industry or AIDS. It's about a scam of world-historic proportions," he told AFP.

While there are no official figures, the film asserts that at least ten million died owing to the lack of low-cost medicine.

"Many of these people died unnecessarily when the drugs were available in other countries much cheaper," Mr Gray said.

The film explores the operations of Western drugmakers and affiliated government offices in the 1990s as well as the activists and AIDS patients who fought back.

Narrated by actor William Hurt, the film includes interviews with Desmond Tutu and Bill Clinton.

Also featured is Yusuf Hamied, the chairman of Indian pharma company Cipla, who revolutionised AIDS treatment with cut-price copycat drugs 12 years ago.

Hamied was hailed by activists but pilloried by Western drug giants when he broke their monopoly, offering to supply life-saving triple therapy AIDS drug cocktails for under US$1 (S$1.2) a day - one-thirtieth of the price of the multinationals' treatments.

Global pharmaceutical firms have since argued that the now-vast generics industry reduces commercial incentives to produce cutting-edge medicines.

Mr Gray said his interest in the subject was piqued by an article in The Economist in 2004, and he decided to make a film in 2007 through "a very strong sense of outrage and indignation that this story could be lost".

"We started in South Africa, which is where the heart of the film is, though spiritually it's in India," Mr Gray said, referring to the country known as the "pharmacy to the world" for its generic drugs industry, which is still locked in battles with foreign pharmaceutical firms.

India's tough patent laws, designed to protect poor people's access to medicine, have led to a string of setbacks for firms such as Swiss drug maker Novartis, whose bid for a patent on a leukaemia drug was rejected earlier this year.

Foreign drugmakers have accused India of failing to respect intellectual property rights in order to promote its own generics industry - a charge New Delhi strongly denies.

"Fire in the Blood" last week won the inaugural Prize for Political Film at the Filmfest Hamburg, where judges described it as "a call to arms".

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