Small-scale protests were conducted by a variety of activist groups in New York City, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Washington DC and Basel (Switzerland) on 22 and 23 Feb to coincide with pharma-giant Novartis’s AGM (held in Basel on 23 Feb). Action was also conducted at the firm’s Horsham, UK site on 25 Feb, and a social media campaign has been running for some time, with activists being encouraged to tweet disparaging messages about the company.
Novartis is currently under fire from HIV/AIDS, human rights and health activists for attempting to enforce its patent on the cancer drug Gleevec by initiating legal proceedings against the Indian government. Activists fear that the outcome of the case may spell an end to the cheap production of drugs in India, which are used to treat cancer and HIV among other ailments. Organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières buy these drugs cheaply from India to provide treatment to people in impoverished areas, and would otherwise be unavailable to afford them. Protests on 22 Feb involved co-ordinated rallies (featuring several different activist groups) outside the firm’s offices, and student activists at the Cambridge offices were removed from the premises by police after trying to deliver a symbolic urn to company officials. On 23 Feb, groups of activists assembled outside the AGM venue in Basel, attempting to reach out and interact with shareholders – playing audio/videos that could allegedly be heard from inside the venue. This tactic is considered to have been particularly successful, and has been noted by other groups.
The 25 Feb protest in Horsham – during which an injunction against such activity was breached - saw a group of student AIDS activists (from Student Stop AIDS Campaign) act ‘dead’ outside one of the gates at the firm’s site, reciting chants in opposition to the firm’s actions. The campaign group have scheduled a ‘day of action’ in London on 13 March – with direct action planned against as-yet unspecified targets. Targets are likely to remain a secret, to be disclosed to activists on the day - as with the Horsham Novartis protest. Novartis does not have London offices, but targets are likely to include other pharmaceutical companies – especially Johnson & Johnson, who were targeted on their 2011 day of action. Around 100 students were involved in the 2011 actions, which involved a demonstration outside Johnson & Johnson’s HQ during which activists attempted to interact with employees, handed out flyers and “made noise”. Action continued with outreach at Boots pharmacies across the city, culminating in a ‘street theatre’ performance outside the flagship Boots pharmacy on Oxford Street. Later in the day, the students bombarded the Johnson & Johnson Facebook page with messages. Pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies in London should be prepared for similar action on 13 March.
Médecins Sans Frontières has launched a social media campaign in protest of the Novartis case, asking individuals to Tweet messages with the hashtag #StopNovartis, and an electronic petition has also been launched (on Avaaz, an online activist hub). Although some initial momentum was generated for these campaigns last week (with well over half of all Tweets about the firm containing the #StopNovartis hashtag at one point), in the wake of 23 Feb action, the response has weakened and general interest appears to be waning. However, higher-profile anti-pharma actions in the coming weeks may promote the cause more widely. In 2006, similar legal proceedings against the Indian government by Novartis saw a much greater public response (including half a million responses to a similar petition and the backing of high-profile signatories including Archbishop Desmond Tutu) – and although this ‘success’ has not been replicated in 2012, there remains time for things to escalate.
A final hearing on the trial is scheduled for 28 March, and further action against the firm is expected in the build-up to this date at locations internationally, with activists continuing to ask Novartis to ‘drop the case’. Pharmaceutical companies should note the progress of the trial and track the use of tactics, as in due course most are likely to be targeted in a similar fashion.