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Sonia Shah: The Body Hunters

By Jessica Stewart
Sonia Shah

Sonia Shah, a critically acclaimed, prize-winning investigative journalist and author presented her expose on the pharmaceutical drug industry as part of the Honors Forum series, “The Culture of Competition,” this spring.

The audience listened attentively as Shah, wrought with conviction explained how the multinational corporate pharmaceutical industry exports drug experimentation to developing countries and the consequences thereof. 

Shah was received by a more than captive audience as it eagerly absorbed her comprehensive account of the many flaws of pharmaceutical testing in newly developed countries.  Her lecture started with the history of human experimentation, gave an overview of the changes in policy regarding human testing, the bottom line motives of corporate pharmaceutical companies or “Big Pharma,” as Shah not-so-fondly called them, and the lack of protection for the people involved in these studies.

Shah explained how the revenue in producing new medicine only exists if the medicine is a high selling commodity. There is no funding towards making drugs for “neglected diseases” such as Malaria or Chagas disease, which affect a large population of the world’s poorest people because there is no profit in those drugs. Instead, pharmaceutical companies spend their time and effort creating new drugs for old conditions such as hereditary baldness and arthritis.

With industrialization, the sedentary lifestyle typical of fully-developed countries like America has spread rapidly to third world countries, bringing with it the big market diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

Shah talked about how this is a dream come true for Big Pharma, because it now has unlimited subjects who are sick and willing to participate in studies for little compensation. Often these people are also suffering from more serious underlying conditions, making them more likely to die faster, a fact, according to Shah, that only serves to benefit Big Pharma, as they get bigger results faster.

To make matters worse, the majority of participants have no idea about what is going on. A questionnaire survey revealed that 30 out of 33 participants who signed an “informed consent form” were misinformed.

Shah explained that their governments were not interested in protecting the participants either because they were jaded by the revenue they made from these experiments. They even changed laws to allow more access for the pharmaceutical companies, as the governments wanted to grow the business.

No one is monitoring these experiments or the outcomes. 90 percent fail and the failed experiments simply vanish. Shah said that there is no accountability for Big Pharma drug experiments on any level.

The audience listened silently as Shah wrapped up with a summary of the price tag created by conducting new drug experiments in developing countries: exploitation, violation of human rights, potential for massive human harm, and mistrust in Western medicine.

Shah cautioned that as more experiments go bad, other third world countries will grow to generally mistrust Western medicine and will refuse medicine that will actually help them, out of fear.

Shah closed on a hopeful note: “The path forward is improved rules, demanding informed consent confirmed, demanding experiments to be public no matter whom they’re on. Yes, drugs will be produced slower and some experiments won’t happen but that’s the price to pay for the difference between animals who don’t have to be asked to be experimented on and humans who do.”

After the lecture, EMCC student William Sanchez, commented on Shah’s presentation, “It’s truly disgraceful, without proper informed consent these people don’t even know they’re getting drugged. People get sick, die, and who benefits, but big business?”

The book on which the lecture was based, “The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World's Poorest Patients” is internationally distributed and has been called “important and powerful” by The New England Journal of Medicine.

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