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If a Tree Falls In the Forest . . . Recall of AIDS Drug for World’s Poorest Patients Generates Neither Media Nor Public Outrage


We like to believe that good people will speak up for the voiceless and powerless, and we count on government and the media to speak out when unscrupulous corporate profitmongers take advantage of people who can’t fight back. Personal injury lawyers are proud of the role they play in helping the disadvantaged seek justice through the courts, where our contingency fee system facilitates equal representation of rich and poor.

But sometimes no one speaks up.

A case in point is the recent total recall of Viracept, an AIDS drug with widespread distribution in third world countries. The lives of thousands of the globe’s poorest AIDS patients are threatened by medication contaminated with a dangerous chemical . . . but the manufacturer remains silent, there has been little media attention, and no one seems to care about finding safe alternative drugs.

Roche Pharmaceuticals of Switzerland, makers of Viracept, discovered last month that some batches at its Swiss plant contained a toxic substance, ethyl mesylate – which, in high doses, causes cancer in animal, and in low doses, can cause genetic mutations. Roche issued a worldwide recall, but failed to provide information about where the contaminated batches were sent, the level of ethyl mesylate dosage, or when Viracept could again be considered safe. The European Medicines Agency, drug regulatory agency for the European Union, yanked Roche’s license. (

In the United States and Canada, a version of Viracept is manufactured by another drug company, so Americans and Canadians were not affected by the recall. But AIDS patients in poverty-stricken countries in Africa and South America are left with alternative medications that are either unaffordable or unavailable. They have no option other than to continue with the recalled Viracept and take their chances – a life or death crap shoot.

Flawed as our watchdog system is in the U.S., we can be grateful for the collaboration of government agencies such as the FDA and consumer advocates like Public Citizen, which sound the alarms and protect us from life-threatening health and safety hazards. In addition, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves that our justice system, rooted in constitutional rights guaranteed to all citizens, provides recourse to those who have been harmed and takes to task greedy corporations that value money over human lives.

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