NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–About 50 protesters uniformly filled Albany Street on April 25 for the annual Johnson & Johnson (J&J) shareholders meeting to convey a message: The price of bedaquiline, a lifesaving tuberculosis (TB) drug sold by J&J, should be no more than a dollar a day.
They chanted in succession, “Pills cost pennies. Greed costs lives,” while most held one or more pill bottles as props.
They were a mix of students, office staff, and volunteers affiliated with the US office of “Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières” (MSF), an organization that sends doctors to work on medical projects in locations around the globe, including Africa, Cambodia, El Salvador, Haiti, India, and Kenya.
Hailing mostly from New York, with a handful from New Jersey, too, many are field workers with MSF, while others are from MSF's student chapters.
Their point was clear: Because the drug was developed with considerable public funding, the public should have a say in its price.
The group held up signs with slogans like “Corporate Greed Hurts Those In Need!” “Public Pay – Public Say,” and “If @JNJCares #No More Tears.”
But the secondary reason they traveled to Hub City was to raise awareness about tuberculosis.
According to MSF, the non-profit is "the largest non-government provider of TB treatment worldwide and has been involved in TB care for 30 years, often working alongside national health authorities to treat people in a wide variety of settings."
Leonardo Palumbo, an Advocacy Advisor with MSF said that J&J makes bedaquiline, one of the first new TB drugs in 50 years (of two made).
Yet only 12% of people who need bedaquiline have access to it, said MSF, citing its price as "one of the key barriers to accessing the medicine."
“The reason why this particular drug is a really important drug is because it improves cure rates. Patients have less side effects and the treatment is more durable,” said Palumbo.
For those that don't have access to J&J’s drug, the multi-drug regimen often used to treat TB can cause deafness, while some patients experience nausea and other side effects, including psychosis.
“The substandard drugs that cause these types of side effects are extremely cheap and available, even though they only have a cure rate of about 55%, so most people are out on those instead of treatments that include J&J’s drug,” noted Palumbo.
However, with bedaquiline, patients have a better cure rate and less severe side effects, he said.
The organization estimated that the $1 price tag it is pushing for would equal $200 for a six-month supply, not cheap, but far less than the $400 that it currently costs to obtain the same. MSF is asking that a six-month treatment should cost half of the present price.
Asked if local authorities had intervened in the demonstration at all, Leonardo said police have been very helpful and supportive to the protesters, who remained stationed behind barricades, accross the street from the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Although it was their first action at a J&J shareholder’s meeting, according to Leonardo, MSF has been quite busy engaging with the pharmaceutical giant.
Sharonanne Lynch, the group's HIV and TB policy advisor was inside the Hyatt, attending J&J's big meeting to convey the group's views on pricing and access, explained Brienne Prusak, MSF's Medical & Global Health Press Officer.
Earlier, she simplified it: Bedaquiline, which is created and developed together with the global TB community using public money, should surely be available at the lowest possible price.
“We are not looking for charity from J&J. Given the joint effort and public investment that went into developing this drug, they should not decide on its price and availability alone,” Lynch said. “Bedaquiline is a game changer in fighting TB, the world’s deadliest infectious disease. But what good is a lifesaving drug if the people who need it most can’t get it?”
While the organization does not have medical operations in the US, it does have an office in New York, which supports its work through advocacy, communications, and fundraising.