It has been nearly a decade since campaigners started their global fight for cheaper drugs to treat HIV/Aids in the world’s poorest countries – and they warn despite improvements in access, the struggle is far from over.
“Fire in the blood” – premiered at the Sheffield Doc/Fest on Thursday – documents how activists have been fighting back against Western pharmaceutical companies and governments who allegedly blocked access to low-cost anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs for developing countries, causing an estimated 10 million deaths after 1996.
Their struggle reached a turning point in 2003 when an Indian company started producing ARV drugs significantly cheaper, a groundbreaking move that has since then helped saving millions of lives in the developing world.
Defying threats of cuts to foreign aid and assistance by Western administrations, governments in Africa and elsewhere started breaking intellectual property laws that granted pharmaceutical companies the right to producing ARV, by buying Indian cheap drugs to treat their HIV positive populations.
Many of those receiving therapy in poor countries are now taking cheaper generic drugs, most of them made in India.
Death rates in Africa dropped after the introduction of generic ARVs, the film points out, giving hope to millions of HIV-positive people.
But health experts and activists in the film warn, the struggle continues as pharmaceutical companies are fighting back to reinforce their monopoly over the ARV market.
Critics say the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, which have developed and control the sale of ARVs, put profits before the lives of the poor by not making the treatments more widely and cheaply available.
The companies argue that they often provide the drugs free or at greatly reduced cost, and argue that they have to command a high price elsewhere to fund research into new treatments for the virus.
After their discovery in 1996, ARV drugs quickly became the monopoly of a bunch of multinational pharmaceutical companies that started selling them at astronomical prices.
For example, in the United States the annual cost of ARV is $15,000 per person per year.
This meant that millions of people in the developing world – for example across Africa, where two thirds of the world’s HIV positive live - would never gain access to this life-saving treatment without generic versions of the drugs.