Gilead Sciences gets a makeover
We wanted to expose the greed and profit-driven logic of the pharmaceutical industry telling the story of Hepatitis C treatment which costs 100 euros to treat in some countries and 80 000 in others.
Hepatitis C is a severe blood-borne disease which currently impacts 70 million people worldwide. That’s almost double the number of people who are living with HIV. Yet there is little public knowledge neither about the disease nor the crisis in curing it. The World Health Organization (WHO) has set 2030 as the goal for elimination of the disease entirely.
This would be an achievable goal if the patented drugs were not so expensive.
The medication, Sofosbuvir was originally developed by a small startup called Pharmasset and then bought and patented by Gilead Sciences. It cures 95% of patients who take it within just 2 months. A so-called “wonderdrug.” The problem is that a corporation, its shareholders and political friends are controlling access to this drug. The pricing is set not by need nor benefit to the world, but on how much profit can be made in the twenty years the patent holds. As if it were not a life-saving medicine, but the next cool lifestyle product or fashion item, we thought.
The cure for hipsters
So our ideas was to reveal this by applying the language and style of lifestyle-advertising to the medicine, to produce a very good looking, if darkly ironic marketing campaign in the name of Gilead Sciences. We produced a new pill bottle design, a slick website, a branded clothesline and a monthly credit scheme to help people who can’t afford the price-tag.
We then went to “Leading London to Hepatitis C Elimination”, a health conference sponsored by Gilead, but strangely lacking any item on the agenda to address the pricing issue. We solved this by showing up with some models wearing the Just C clothing, and hijacking the stage, as a representative of Gilead to launch our innovative credit scheme “Debt or Death.”
Gilead responded by telling journalists our ideas were “unethical” and beyond their “wildest nightmares”. Pretty hypocritical coming from a company sitting back and watching people die because they can’t afford their medicine.
Buyers Clubs self-organize to get affordable generics
Next we wanted to show the alternatives to Gilead’s expensive drugs, generics which have been tested and proven to be just as good. Often patients, upon learning their diagnosis of the bloodborne virus, are told by their health providers, that they do not qualify for treatment, and will have to wait until their condition worsens. In most countries in Europe this strategy treatment rationing is being deployed to counter the high drug prices. In the UK where we were focused for this campaign, only 5 % of the patients needing the drugs, were being treated.
This is absurd since there are affordable versions of the drugs sold by Gilead, currently being produced and by other pharmaceutical companies in Bangladesh, Egypt, India and Morocco right now. The only thing stopping them flowing into most of Europe and the USA is Gilead’s patent. However the global TRIPS agreement allows citizens to import up to three months of any prescription medicine, which is not sold in their own country, for personal use. So more and more people, when faced with denial from their health providers, are beginning to take advantage of this loophole, to access generic Hepatitis C cures. Forming “buyers’ clubs” to import and distribute the drugs to the people who need them, this is a global citizen movement.
We collaborated with David Cowley, who runs one of these buyers clubs out of Wales and has successfully helped 500 people access generic treatment, to encourage others to join the community. We even set up a pop-up generic pharmacy outside Chelsea Hospital to promote it.
Gilead responded to our campaign to politico.eu, a subscription-only policy magazine in Brussels, by warning against buyers clubs and saying we were exaggerating about the price of the drugs, but that they couldn’t say how much it actually costs. Oh and the reason people aren’t getting the medication in the UK is because the National Health Service (NHS) is inefficient. Sure. Health professionals confirmed what we already knew, there is never any problem with roll-out when drugs are affordable. And anyway isn’t it about time for transparency on the pricing of medicine?