What connects the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 to Remdesivir, the blockbuster medicine widely used during the ongoing Covid pandemic?
First is the fact that both are based on dubious claims. The US invasion was carried out on the false pretext of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction, while Remdesivir has been aggressively marketed as a drug the benefits Covid patients without any evidence.
The second connection is that both, at the core, were money making schemes for its backers. The US war on Iraq cost over USD2 trillion, a lot of it going to private military contractors with strong political connections. Remdesivir, since its approval by the US FDA in October 2020, has chalked up sales of over USD2.8 billion for the pharma company Gilead Sciences and expected to bring in another USD3 billion in 2021.
A third and perhaps the most insidious connection of all is that behind the bald lies deployed in both cases, by governments and big pharma, is the same crooked brain – of Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of State under George Bush Jr. who died on 29 June at the age of 88.
Rumsfeld, a Congressman from Illinois at the age of 30 who also became the youngest US Secretary of Defence at age 43 under President Gerald Ford, flitted in and out of the amoral worlds of both modern politics and business all his life, without any scruples. US President Richard Nixon once lovingly called him a “ruthless little bastard.” Another admirer Henry Kissinger, a mean character himself, said he was ‘the most ruthless man I ever met”.
And they were both right, for ‘ruthless’ was indeed the middle name of Donald Rumsfeld. In 2002, as Secretary of State Rumsfeld set up the Office of Special Plans, which provided the fabricated evidence needed to falsely claim Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The US invasion of the country resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and the destabilization of the Middle East that continues till today.
What is somewhat less known is that Rumsfeld was a key figure in the US pharma industry for decades – and the many of the dirty practices he pioneered decades ago – are still with us in the midst of the global Covid pandemic.
Rumsfeld started his career in the industry as the CEO of G.D. Searle, the pharmaceutical firm, from 1977-1985. He turned the loss-making company around by using his political clout to get US Food and Drug Administration approval of Aspartame, the artificial sweetener that became very profitable for Searle during the 1980s. The chemical additive had been rejected by the same FDA for long due to its potential cancer and brain tumour-causing side-effects.
Rumsfeld next took over as the Chairman of Gilead Sciences, a little-known California based biopharmaceutical company in 1997, and remained in this position till the day he joined as Secretary of State in 2001. Despite being in office he continued to hold financial interests in the company.
According to his official financial disclosure records, in 2005, Donald Rumsfeld held a Gilead stake valued at between USD5 million and USD25 million. In the same year yet another former Secretary of State George Shultz, sold over USD7 million worth of Gilead shares. Today the Gilead is among the top 20 pharma companies in the world, with revenues of over USD24.5 billion in 2020.
While the company sells drugs for ailments ranging from HIV and hepatitis C to fungal infections and Covid-19, several of its products are highly controversial due to their obtaining fast-track clearance from regulators, due to strong links in the highest echelons of US politics. For example, the problem with Gilead’s Remdesivir, sold under the brand name Veklury as a therapeutic for Covid, is simply that there is no real evidence of it helping patients.
While some initial studies, with small sample sizes, claimed that Covid patients who received the drug recovered faster and fewer people died, a large-scale analysis by the World Health Organization’s Solidarity trial consortium showed no such benefits. Studying more than 5000 participants the WHO trial concluded that Remdesivir “had little or no effect on hospitalized patients with Covid-19, as indicated by overall mortality, initiation of ventilation, and duration of hospital stay.” As a result WHO till date recommends against the use of Remdesivir in Covid-19 patients.
Despite the poor data supporting its safety and efficacy the US FDA granted the drug approval, making it the first ever officially sanctioned treatment for Covid-19 and boosting its fortunes immensely. At USD2600 for a course Remdesivir was also priced exorbitantly high in the US markets and in countries like India too,,, shortages of the drug during the second Covid wave in April this year, pushed its prices up astronomically.
This was not the first time the Rumsfeld—backed Gilead Sciences had gotten away with pushing an ineffective drug onto the global markets, using a combination of clever marketing strategies and powerful connections. From 2005 to 2009, following the avian flu scare in southeast Asia, governments around the world spent billions of dollars on stockpiling oseltamivir, better known as ‘Tamiflu’ , an anti-viral drug developed by Gilead and licensed to the pharma giant Roche.
However, in 2014 in a landmark study the Cochrane Collaboration, a global not-for-profit organisation of over 14,000 medical researchers, found that Tamiflu did not prevent the spread of flu or reduce dangerous complications, and only slightly helped symptoms. In other words, it was hardly the essential or lifesaving drug it was made out to be by large volumes of industry funded research papers and media propaganda.
In an editorial last year, the prestigious British Medical Journal, pointed out the startling similarities between the Tamiflu and Remdesivir sagas, both of which were based on ‘limited, poor quality research, mainly funded by drug companies’. It further said ‘the history of the Covid-19 pandemic will be strewn not only with lost lives and livelihoods but with the bloated carcasses of treatments hyped and bought at great expense, only to be found wanting”.
At one level the sordid story of Remdesivir, which continues to be prescribed widely, raises the question of credibility of global medical standards, integrity of regulatory mechanisms and the sheer vulnerability of ordinary citizens when it comes to exercising their right to safe and efficacious medicine. At another level altogether, the involvement of Donald Rumsfeld with Gilead Sciences highlights the way pharma lobbyists distort health and medicine policies by influencing decision making of governments and state agencies to the advantage of powerful private interests.
In a country like India, which has a huge pharmaceutical industry and an abysmal healthcare system, there are many lessons to be learned as here too regulatory bodies are easily manipulated by those with the right connections or by offering the right amount of money. Since the start of the Covid pandemic early last year the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) has approved dozens of repurposed drugs for ‘restricted emergency use’ without explaining the basis, especially when the manufacturers’ data on their effectiveness was unconvincing.
While Donald Rumsfeld was the US or even global version of the ‘ruthless little bastard’, clearly there are many in the Indian context too who would easily qualify for this glorious title.
Satya Sagar is a journalist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org