John le Carre slams pharmaceutical profiteering

What is the gist of the story of “The Constant Gardener”?

J Le Carre: It is set in post-colonial Kenya, today, in an imaginary British High Commission. I never actually entered the British High Commission in Nairobi, deliberately, because I wanted to set my own “flora and fauna” as it were. [The book] tells of the gradual discovery of a big criminal fraud being perpetrated by a partly British-owned pharmaceutical company which is distributing a cure – an alleged, short-course cure – for Tuberculosis. As the story unfolds I hope we go through the labyrinth of political and industrial intrigue and along the way, we take a look at the dark side, the bad side of the big Pharma world, as its known, of the pharmaceutical industry in its multi-national forms.

The other part of the story, the story which is in some ways closer to the novelist’€™s heart, is that a man whose wife has been murdered because she was finding out too much about a particular drug, goes in search of her killers. In the course of doing so, he discovers, as it were, and fortifies his own love for the dead woman. And that’€™s the story, I think, or as much of it as I can narrate now!

SV: At the end of the book you have a disclaimer about the fictional pharmaceutical company you’€™ve described and the work it does. At the same time, you say that as you have discovered more about the pharmaceutical industry your story is as “tame as a holiday postcard”. Have you had any reaction from the pharmaceutical industry to your novel?

JleC: No, I think the pharmaceutical industry is perfectly well aware of, what I would regard as, the unethical side of its own activities and I think there are many people in the industry who would wish them to end. I think also, you have to realise that the exposes that have recently come our way about he pharmaceutical industry are far more authoritative than my fiction. Most recently the Washington Post concluded an extraordinary and harrowing long investigation into the dark side of the industry, the use of human guinea pigs in countries particularly which will never be able to afford the drugs which are being tested on them. And all of these things have come to light, accidentally, quite recently. So I don’€™t see myself as a lone spokesman in this, I simply gave a fictional and I hope a fairly passionate form to a problem everyone has been aware of for a long time.

It’€™s a very English story in some ways, and it’€™s quite comic to me to note that in my country we’€™ve just had everyone going into moral contortions about the rights and wrongs of fox-hunting. But nobody has seemed that moved so far by the appalling dilemma of 80% of the world’€™s HIV and AIDS cases being in sub-Saharan Africa, 23 million Africans HIV infected we believe. And the problem that the pharmaceutical industry is not actually very interested in making drugs for the poor.

The dilemma is of course, the mystery of patents. The argument of the industry is that when they’€™ve spent a lot of money developing the drug, they then must have the patents so that they can recover their money and that research and development costs are so immense that they need a huge mark-up. Therefore that any generic drug, ie, any drug which is made to the same formula but is not patented, is a threat in the long run to world health and the pharmaceutical market. There are a lot of flaws in that argument. We’€™ve been subjected to a great deal of spin and a great deal of misrepresentation of costs and I think it all has to be fought out in a much more public place.

SV: At the end of the book you write of the virtues of a wine and olive estate on the island of Elba and describe it as a place one may go to “in search of answers to life’€™s great riddles”. Do you feel yourself caught up in exploring these riddles and are you compelled to explore issues of right and wrong?

JleC: [laughs] Yes, I don’€™t think that’€™s anything new in me. I’€™m becoming an old man now, I guess, in years at least, and I am greatly vexed and made impatient by the aftermath of the Cold War. I spent a relatively small part of my life fighting the Cold War on what is perceived as the victorious side and at the end of the Cold War I think I expected some of the things that we claimed to have been fighting for to come about. I think we had promised minorities, ethnic minorities, people who were not spoken for properly, some kind of greater freedom under the new system. But what seems to me to have happened in this post Cold War era is that the cause, the crusade of capitalism has reached a sickening level of self-indulgence. The caring message we tried to put over during the Cold War has ceased to be heard or felt. And, that’€™s something I feel increasingly. I don’€™t think the world needs to be in such a mess. I felt that when the Cold War ended we needed some gesture of great leadership, we needed something comparable to the Marshall Plan of the ‘€˜39-‘€™45 war, we needed to see the young people of America under the banner of the Peace Corps going to the former Soviet Union and learning to get to know their perceived enemies of the past. We needed, I think to find a new banner-head for universal compassion and work out what the new enemies were ‘€“ which were poverty, sickness, famine, ill health and the awful waste of human life which we’€™re perceiving at the moment.

It seems to me that nobody gave that message “the roar”, as Churchill would have said, and we fell upon very self-indulgent times instead.

SV: Do you have any ideas as to how we would get out of the mess?

JlC: Well, I think a little anger does no harm. We seem to accept far too much these days. But, I’€™m not a great moralist [laughs] I just despair a little, I suppose, at the way in which we’€™re able to ignore human suffering ‘€“ the scale of human suffering which is around us and the appalling disparity, which only increases, between the rich and the poor.


  • Health-e News

    Health-e News is South Africa's dedicated health news service and home to OurHealth citizen journalism. Follow us on Twitter @HealtheNews

Free to Share

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stay in the loop

We love that you love visiting our site. Our content is free, but to continue reading, please register.

Newsletter Subscription