Bizarre Headline: “Big Pharma Blocks Imports of Generic AIDS Drugs” into Africa


“Big Pharma” patrols the high seas in search of plunder and patent infringement.

This headline comes to us from the venerable Democracy Now! news hour of January 23, 2013:

“Fire in the Blood”: Millions Die in Africa After Big Pharma Blocks Imports of Generic AIDS Drugs

When I saw this headline rolling up my facebook feed as most shared from Democracy Now!, two thoughts hit me almost at once.

The first thought was that Democracy Now! is to be commended for bringing this monumental story to us. Millions of people are out there dying, and I haven’t heard boo about it from any other media source. This is standard fare. If you want to get the scoop, tune into Democracy Now!

To understand my second thought, you must realize that I am a libertarian Juris Doctor. As a law guy, I tend to take things rather literally. So upon encountering a headline alleging that Big Pharma is blocking imports of generic drugs, I promptly envision the private fleet of pirates that Pfizer and AstraZeneca must have hired to swashbuckle and maraud and pillage the vessels of competing merchants. I delighted in this anti-corporate progressive fantasy for about ten seconds before hypothesizing the reality:

“Big Pharma isn’t blocking anything,” I suspected. “I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that some government is blocking those imports at Big Pharma’s behest, and I’ll have to see the story to find out which one and why.” 

So I click on the link and start reading the story. Sure enough, the claim therein is slightly different:

The new documentary, “Fire in the Blood,” examines how millions have died from AIDS because big pharmaceutical companies and the United States have refused to allow developing nations to import life-saving generic drugs.

Emphasis added. Ah yes. I see. So big pharmaceutical companies and the United States are blocking the imports. Well that makes more sense. I’d go a step further and hypothesize that the United States is providing roughly 100% of the force requisite to effectively block these imports.


‘The United States’ blocks the import of life saving drugs into Africa.

And it isn’t really “the United States”, is it? No. People are doing that, not abstract political constructs. The officers and agents of the United States’ government are doing that, are they not? In that case, the headline should probably more correctly read:

“Fire in the Blood”: Millions Die in Africa After the United States’ Government Blocks Imports of Generic AIDS Drugs

The final question is, “Why?” Of course it is a patent issue, which is very contentious among libertarians. Some favor patent enforcement, and others oppose patent enforcement. What I want you to take away from this little rant, however, is that the patent program is a government program. The government solicits patent applications. The government issues patents. The government enforces patents. The government blocks imports of generic AIDS drugs into Africa. Not Big Pharma.

So here is Democracy Now!‘s segment on the catastrophe. Kudos to them for bringing it to my attention when no one else would. Just remember, though, that solutions to this problem will be slow to come so long as we misidentify the culprits.

P.S.: While you’re cursing the U.S. Patent Office, don’t forget to save some ire and vim for the FDA, which regularly kills unknown numbers of people by interfering with and delaying the release of potentially life saving drugs. Stossel had a great segment on this a while back:

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