segunda-feira, junho 18, 2007
Abbott ataca Act-Up Paris (2)
Wall Street Journal
Sues AIDS Group
June 18, 2007; Page B1
Breaking what has become a taboo in the pharmaceutical industry's respectful relations with AIDS activists, Abbott Laboratories has sued a French AIDS group for launching a cyber attack against its Web site.
The unusually aggressive legal move comes on top of other controversial measures Abbott has taken, such as quintupling the price of one of its AIDS drugs in the U.S. and scrapping plans to introduce an improved formulation of another AIDS drug in Thailand.
With its lawsuit, filed in a French criminal court on May 23, the company is violating an unwritten practice the drug industry long ago adopted to be conciliatory toward AIDS organizations. Aside from angering the global AIDS community, Abbott's actions have prompted dismay among other drug makers, which have come to see picking fights with AIDS activists as self-defeating and bad public relations.
"Early on, we realized it was important to work with the activist groups," says Justine Frain, vice president of global community partnerships at GlaxoSmithKline PLC, recalling the public-relations headaches AIDS activists caused for the British drug maker with their stunts in the late 1980s, such as when they chained themselves to company buildings. Glaxo's philosophy now is "that community groups are part of the solution," she says.
Abbott, based in Abbott Park, Ill., called its suit against the group Act Up-Paris "a principled action," justified by the fact that the cyber attack interrupted some of its business activities, such as the sale of nutritional products online. Abbott says the activist group violated two articles of the French penal code that prohibit disrupting a Web site and providing the means for someone to do so.
"We respect the right to protest and, while our organizations can disagree on various matters, it is important to convey those disagreements in a respectful, appropriate and lawful manner," Abbott spokesman Scott Stoffel said. The company declined to further explain its public-relations strategy in breaking with the industry norm.
If the court rules against Act Up-Paris, it could fine it as much as €75,000, or $100,000, and order its disbanding.
Act Up-Paris is an offshoot of New York-based Act Up, which stands for AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. The French Act Up is known for its provocative tactics, such as destroying drug companies' booths at conferences and splattering fake blood on their office buildings. It has sometimes drawn criticism from other AIDS organizations for being too radical.
"We use symbolic violence to call attention to the real violence" brought on patients by pharmaceutical companies' actions, says Jerome Martin, an Act Up-Paris member.
But AIDS activists have rallied around the organization and denounced Abbott's lawsuit as an ugly intimidation tactic. "It's the latest in a long line of miserable actions by Abbott," says Mark Harrington, executive director of the Treatment Action Group, an AIDS advocacy group based in New York.
Abbott began its hardball behavior in late 2003 when it raised the price of its AIDS drug Norvir, which is used in combination with pills from rival companies, by 400% in the U.S. The move was part of a strategy to persuade patients to stop using Norvir and the competitors' drugs and switch to Abbott's new combination pill, Kaletra.
In a page-one article1 last January, The Wall Street Journal revealed that Abbott contemplated even more controversial actions in the months leading up to the price increase. Under one scenario, it considered removing Norvir pills from the U.S. market and selling the medicine only in a liquid formulation that one of its executive admitted tasted like vomit, emails and internal documents showed. To fend off questions from AIDS patients, Abbott discussed using the cover story that it needed Norvir pills for a humanitarian effort in Africa. Abbott says this scenario was considered by executives who weren't decision makers and quickly discarded.
Abbott further riled the AIDS community earlier this year when it withdrew all its pending new drug applications from Thailand after the country announced it would break the company's patent on Kaletra to import or produce cheaper copies of the drug. One of the applications Abbott pulled was for a newer heat-resistant formulation of Kaletra particularly well-suited to Thailand's tropical climate. Activists said the move was unprecedented and likened it to the "nuclear option."
Abbott took a more conciliatory step in April when it said it would work with the World Health Organization to sell Kaletra to many developing nations, including Thailand, below the price of generics. But it refused to reverse its decision to pull its new drug applications from the country. Abbott says it held its stance on the new-drug applications because the Thai government hasn't yet assured it that it respects intellectual property, although discussions continue.
On April 26, Act Up-Paris responded to a call by Thai AIDS patient groups to protest Abbott's actions by organizing an attack on the company's Web site. By clicking on a link posted on Act Up-Paris's own Web site, between 500 and 1,000 activists from France, Canada, the U.S., India and Thailand overloaded Abbott's server. Mr. Martin says the attack lasted a total of four hours and disabled Abbott's site for about 30 minutes on the eve of its annual shareholder meeting. (An Abbott spokesman says the site was disabled for longer than that, but couldn't provide a specific timeframe.) After sending a threatening letter to Act Up-Paris, Abbott filed suit.
Though some of the group's past stances have been criticized by other AIDS organizations, activists have come to its defense, expressing outrage that a drug company would sue protesters. They say the attack against Abbott's Web site was a legitimate mode of protest and Abbott's response is disproportionate.
"You can agree or not with [Act Up-Paris], but there is something called freedom of speech that says you can go to Abbott's headquarters and you can do the same with a Web site," says Joan Tallada, chairman of GTT, a Barcelona-based AIDS organization.
Abbott's aggressive tactics have raised eyebrows in the pharmaceutical industry. "I've spoken to pharmaceutical industry executives who think that Abbott's position on Thailand is a PR disaster for the industry," says Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a large provider of medical care to AIDS patients.
Act Up-Paris's Mr. Martin says the group will defend itself in court against the lawsuit but also plans on using the media coverage garnered by the lawsuit to draw attention back to Abbott's actions.
"We're going to use the forum they're offering us to talk about Thailand again and the horrible consequences their decision has had there," he says.