John Le Carré on the Crimes of the Pharmaceutical Industries

Le Carré speaks out against the global pharmaceutical industry

Mar 28, 2001

John le Carré has given an interview to swissinfo about his latest novel, “The Constant Gardener”, in which he attacks the Swiss pharmaceutical industry. He also spoke of his relationship with – and affection for – Switzerland.

The book, set in Africa, is about a fictional pharmaceutical company seeking to promote a “wonder cure” for tuberculosis. Le Carré told swissinfo that as part of his research he conducted off-the-record interviews with people working in Basel for the Swiss pharmaceutical industry.

Le Carré said he would never reveal the names of his contacts, nor identify the companies they worked for. But he did say that when he began exploring the industry, his contacts in Switzerland and Britain told him “some very alarming things”.

He pointed out that an estimated 80 per cent of AIDS sufferers were in southern Africa, and only one per cent had access to medication because of its high costs. “I accept that the drug companies are not charities,” he said. “But they are spending more than twice as much on marketing as on research and development.

The author believes it is wrong that prices of medicines in Africa are based on what the US market is able to pay.

“It cannot continue that we allow patent laws to exercise the right of life and death on these people. It’s genocide. It simply means you kill the poor. And so that was what the novel was really about, the use of Africans as guinea pigs…being theoretically willing to test medicines which neither they nor their countries would ever be able to buy.”

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Le Carré went on to say that he wrote the book with a sense of mission: “I was very interested in the exploitation of Africa in what we theoretically call the post-colonial period. There are many forms of colonialism but the most acute is financial, and I wanted to write about the exploitation of poor people by the rich in the wake of the cold war.

“Something like three-fifths of the world population is far worse off now than 10 years ago. Globalisation doesn’t work – it doesn’t distribute wealth the way it’s supposed to.”

When he began preparing to write the novel, le Carré considered the way other industries, such as oil and tobacco, operated on a global basis. “Then a wise friend, who knew Africa very well, said there’s nothing to beat the pharmaceutical companies. So I started exploring that through the aid agencies.”

Le Carré said he had had no response to the novel from the pharmaceutical industry, but “I’m sure [they are] furious.”

During the interview, the British author also spoke about his relationship with Switzerland and the Swiss, which began when he studied at Bern University.

“I don’t think the Swiss are any different from other people, but they like to think they are,” he said with a laugh. Le Carré added that they had provided the context for “a lot of bad behaviour”, including money laundering, as a result of the country’s banking secrecy laws.

He told swissinfo that while he detected a sense of false respectability in many Swiss, he greatly admired and was fond of them, and had even had a house built in Switzerland. “I don’t mean to offend,” he said, “but it’s just that when I started exploring the pharmaceutical industry, my hair stood on end.”

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