8 videos that explain the tension between HIV activists and Big Pharma

From Hollywood blockbusters, to investigative documentaries, to our own short, satirical animation, here are eight videos that show how the pharmaceutical companies, which market the medicines that can save and transform lives, are frequently the ‘bad guys’, not just in the film sense, but in real life.

Going back as far as 2005 through to new releases, the stories show the various fights for access to essential medicines, especially for HIV. They show dodgy trials, deliberate delays, illegal monopolies, and medicines being priced obscenely – just some of the tactics designed to generate more profit. This view of medicines as a commodity rather than a social good, results in millions of unnecessary deaths.

A lot of progress has been made, in large part thanks to activists, but what’s clear, whichever video you watch, is that the fight keeps changing.

We must celebrate and learn from the successes. However, while greed continues, so will preventable deaths, and therefore inspiring activism will also continue.

1. Fire in the blood, 2013

A tale of “medicine, monopoly and malice”, Fire in the Blood tells the story of how Western pharmaceutical companies and governments aggressively blocked access to low-cost AIDS drugs across Africa and the global south in the years after 1996 – causing at least 10 million unnecessary deaths.

Shot across four continents, the film shows a group of people who decided to fight back.

It is the true story of a remarkable coalition which came together to stop “the crime of the century” and save millions of lives in the process. But as it highlights, this story is by no means over.

2. Big Pharma Drop the Case! 2018

This short satirical animation produced by the Make Medicines Affordable campaign, shows the lengths that Big Pharma will go to to protect unmerited monopolies. ABIA in Brazil and Fundación GEP in Argentina, two national NGOs, have launched a campaign to stop Big Pharma suing their governments. That’s right, super-rich multinational corporations are suing governments for using their right to protect public health.

3. How to survive a plague, 2012

How to survive a plague shows the founding of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) in the US. We watch as activists learn to become their own researchers, lobbyists, drug smugglers, and clinicians, establishing their own newspapers, research journals, and laboratories, and as they go on to force reform in the USA’s disease-fighting agencies. Around the world, millions of people are alive today thanks to their efforts.

4. 120 BPM, 2017

The club scene is the backdrop to 120 BPM, named after the speed that most house music plays at (120 beats per minute). The film depicts the how in the early 1990s a group of HIV/AIDS activists associated with ACT UP Paris struggled to effect action to fight the AIDS epidemic.

While the French government has declared its intent to support people living with HIV, ACT UP stages public protests against its sluggish pace to fight the disease. When the pharmaceutical company Melton Pharm announces its plans to wait to reveal its HIV trial results at a conference the following year, ACT UP invades its offices with fake blood and demands it release its trial results immediately.

The film covers both the political storyline of ACT UP’s actions as well as the personal stories and tragedies of ACT UP members.

5. Dying for Drugs, 2017

Dying for Drugs is a powerful international investigation of the global pharmaceutical industry.

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.

6. Evergreening Patents, 2016

Evergreening means keeping something forever fresh and green? Sounds good doesn’t it? Not when it refers to a tactic used by the pharmaceuticals to extend, extend and extend profitable drug patents.

If you’re unclear why pharmaceutical companies receive so much criticism, and think perhaps monopolies are deserved because of research and development costs, then this is an excellent place to start to have the facts laid out simply.

7. Dallas Buyers’ Club, 2013

Based on Ron Woodroof’s life, a Texan man diagnosed with HIV in the mid-80s, Dallas Buyers’ Club depicts the frustrations of not being able to access treatment, despite being told you have limited days left and the treatment that could significantly extend your life does exist elsewhere.

Despite being criticised for getting some things wrong, the film tells the very true tale that many people are still faced with, and turning to buyers clubs when they can’t wait for the medical establishment to save them.

8. Constant Gardener, 2005

Based on the 2001 novel by John le Carré, the story follows a British diplomat in Kenya, as he tries to solve the murder of his wife, an Amnesty activist, Tessa. Tessa was investigating a suspicious drug trial in Kenya in order to expose it. When she gets too close to uncovering the malpractices of an influential and powerful pharmaceutical company, she and her colleague are murdered. Hollywood it is, but away from Tinseltown is a true story of how multinational drug companies took liberties with lives with devastating consequences.