WORDS FROM THE FRONT
By Celia Farber
Spin Sept. 1992
changes everything, and the fight against AIDS is no exception.
Celia Farber uncovers some disturbing financial connections between
the makers of AZT and prominent activist groups.
One of the
central issues surrounding the fight against AIDS has always been
if, how, or to what degree the pharmaceutical industry is pulling
the strings of the medical community, AIDS organizations, and even
the medical journals that depend on its advertising.
A classic ethical
conundrum in our capitalist society is how to regard the flow of
funds and its potential impact of the flow of information - why
do corporations place their money where they do? When does a gift
become a bribe? These questions have recently arisen in the world
of AIDS politics due to reports that Burroughs Wellcome Co. has
contributed large sums of money to key AIDS organizations. There
is nothing inherently sinister about that, one might argue, since
it's plausible that Wellcome just wants to improve its karma. You
know, do the right thing. But knowing that there is a blazing controversy
surrounding AZT - regarding its terrible toxicity, whether or not
it does much good, the validity of clinical studies, and pricing
- and since the AIDS groups in question present themselves as objective
and impartial, this news does give one a pause.
In fact, for
years, Burroughs Wellcome has been giving money to a great number
of AIDS organizations, large and small. A Chicago-based AIDS organization,
Test Positive Aware Network, just received $350,000 from Burroughs
Wellcome, which amounts to half of its budget. The group said it
used the money to pay for its newsletter. Project Inform, a leading
AIDS organization and information service, got $150,000 from Wellcome
to upgrade its computer system. Treatment Action Group (TAG), an
offshoot of ACT UP, received $10,000,and ACT UP Golden Gate received
$2,000. Says TAG founder Peter Staley, "It's hard to find an
AIDS organization that hasn't taken money from Burroughs Wellcome."
to the question of whether the Wellcome money may influence his
organization's policies, Project Inform Executive Director Martin
Delaney says, "In no case do any of these groups report to
Burroughs Wellcome. It is entirely appropriate that we seek funding
from the companies that have profited from this epidemic."
"We've criticized the price of AZT, and the validity of some
studies. If Burroughs Wellcome does something stupid and irresponsible,
we're going to be out here as loudly and strongly as we were in
spokesman Kathy Bartlett insists, "We are not influencing information.
We are doing this to create a broader distribution of information."
Wellcome has contributed more than $5 million to national and community-based
organizations that provide HIV-related services and programs. Wellcome
aggressively promotes AZT for early treatment of HIV infection.
A Wellcome press release attributes its donations to the company's
"strong commitment to improving health care and a tradition
of philanthropy." I'm all for philanthropy, but this worries
me. I'm not saying that Burroughs Wellcome is a company driven by
evil people, but on what basis are we to assume that gargantuan
pharmaceutical companies are able of such benevolent, altruistic
aims as philanthropy? My concern is that profit-driven companies,
much like the government, don't have feelings. Individuals do. The
main objective of a company is to grow and to be profitable, and
for this, it needs the cooperation, not the resistance, of a certain
population. Voilà. It's not evil, as such - it's just business.
It is, after all, selling a product.
Some of the
groups receiving Wellcome money put out newsletters in which AZT
is discussed, almost invariably uncritically. Would they hold the
same uncritical stance on AZT if there were no financial connections
to Wellcome? In all fairness, quite possibly. Will they be able
to be perfectly objective about the AZT controversy in the future,
particularly if they develop a financial dependency on Wellcome
funding? Possibly, but as the British would say: not bloody likely.
One of the
most problematic developments in the Wellcome funding debate involves
the AIDS activist group ACT UP. ACT UP has, in the past, been fiercely
critical of Burroughs Wellcome and other large pharmaceutical companies,
charging that they exploit people with AIDS through exorbitant pricing,
among other things. Another complaint is that Wellcome, by virtue
of its wealth and power, has clogged up federal research trials
with its drugs, to the exclusion of other potentially lifesaving
treatments. Although ACT UP has not taken significant sums of money
directly from Wellcome, it has launched a drive to get pharmaceutical
companies to donate to community-based research organizations. On
June 30, a press conference was held at which it was announced that
Wellcome had donated $1 million to AmFAR (American Foundation for
AIDS Research) as a result of ACT UP's negotiations.
of ACT UP were very devided on this," says Vic Hernandez, a
member of the group. "I personally am very concerned about
this. Look at where the money is going. AmFAR has a very conservative
approach to AIDS treatment and to questions about HIV and AIDS."
The deal was
negotiated by former ACT UP Treatment and Data committee member
Staley, a prominent activist who was one of a group that invaded
the Wellcome complex and chained themselves to a radiator to protest
the price of AZT in 1989.
Staley created TAG, which was designed to be leaner, meaner, and
more efficient at targeting treatment issues than the unwieldy ACT
UP. Eventually, Staley worked his way onto the board of directors
of AmFAR. It was as a member of all three groups that Staley - using
ACT UP's reputation for political tenacity, TAG's stable relationship
with Burroughs Wellcome, and AmFAR's mainstream appeal - managed
to bring former adversaries ACT UP and Wellcome together.
At the June
30 press conference, Staley, representing ACT UP, said, "ACT
UP New York is pleased to announce the successful launching of its
campaign to solicit funds from the pharmaceutical industry for the
Community-Based Clinical Trials Network (CBCTN). Burroughs Wellcome
Co. has agreed to provide $1 million as a leadership grant this
year, with the possibility of renewals pending reviews of the progress
of the clinical trial program."
that ACT UP had contacted 50 pharmaceutical companies asking them
to donate funds, with the goal of raising $5 million this year.
The majority of ACT UP members voted in favor of the fundraising
campaign and see the move as a step in the right direction - with
drug companies putting funds back into the community. Others are
concerned and feel that Staley used ACT UP's name without really
respecting that the move might compromise - or at least appear to
compromise, the group's ideological stance. The controversy is raging:
Is this a step forward, toward a "common goal," or is
it an unwitting and potential devastating sellout for the activist
community? Staley defends charges of attaching ACT UP's name to
what some call "dirty money" by saying at a press conference,
"A million dollars for AIDS research is a million dollars for
at war and must use desperate measures," he told the Village
Voice. "If I have to take money from the devil to save my life
and the lives of my friends, I'll do it."
Staley is convinced
that this move will in no way compromise the activist community's
integrity, and that both ACT UP and TAG will remain as critical
of Burroughs Wellcome as they have been in the past. Others are
like this deal at all," says Bill Dobbs, a longtime member
of ACT UP, "because it blurs the lines, and it will ultimately
prevent ACT UP from doing what it does best, which is to be a watchdog.
Staley can do whatever he wants with TAG, but the fact is he used
ACT UP as a club to beat the drug companies with because they're
afraid of ACT UP. I find it absurd that ACT UP should wind up assisting
Burroughs Wellcome public-relation efforts, and that's exactly what
this is for them." Staley declined to comment.
To ACT UP members
like Dobbs, who take ACT UP's democratic ideology very seriously,
Staley, for all his good efforts, appears maddeningly oblivious
to the fundamental principles of the group. Staley and his ilk have
brought a kind of "whatever works" methodology to AIDS
activism. And they get results, but the question is, at which cost?
While the majority
of ACT UP voted in favor of the move, Dobbs contends that many were
not fully aware of what they were voting about. "I don't think
most of us knew just what Staley was getting ACT UP into here. When
it did become clear, it was too late."
AIDS organizations - in this country alone - competing for funds,
Staley seems to have pulled a miraculous stunt. What may or may
not happen to ACT UP's integrity as a political organization remains
to be seen. It's the age-old dilemma - if you have an urgent cause
at hand, do the ends justify the means? Says Dobbs, "People
ask me, would you rather this money not be spent at all? To which
I respond, why do we have to be put in these situations in the first
Does he believe
that the Burroughs Wellcome funds will influence the discourse of
AZT? "When you're saying money around, one way or another you
acquire influence," he says. "They also make the people
who are taking the money dependent on them and that creates another
kind of fear. Not only are you taking this money, but you might
lose it. The bureaucracies are going to expand because of this money.
And they're going to have to scramble if they do something Burroughs
Wellcome doesn't like."*
research by Staci Bonner