With the death of John le Carré this last week, I felt it was about time I read some of his work, as opposed to seeing the film versions on TV. So I picked his December 2000 book The Constant Gardener, since in dealing with the rapacity and unscrupulousness of Big Pharma, it seemed somehow topical.
Now as Le Carré is careful to point out in an authorial postscript, his story of the brutal murder of an aid worker getting too close to a drug trial scandal in Africa is nothing to do with actual pharmaceutical corporations, governments or WHOs living or dead. But he rather takes away with the left hand what he offers with the right by saying:
As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realise that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.
Specifically, I guess he meant that his book had nothing to do with the illegal Pfizer trial of a meningitis treatment in the poor city of Kano, northern Nigeria, in the 1990s, in which eleven poor children died, though there are several other possible examples.
But given that the book was written a decade before the WHO corruption scandal over swine flu vaccine, it is remarkably prescient. Or, more probably, it is just well-informed on the way things were working back then, and also now, nothing effectively having occurred to change things.
On a non-pharmaceutical note, for example, I was amused that the hero observes, of the dragon in the British Diplomatic Service he encounters on his recall from the Kenyan High Commission, that “soon you’ll get your women’s college and be Dame Alison.” That struck me because of the four Masters of my own Cambridge College since I left, only one was an academic: of the rest, one was the former head of MI6, and another the High Commissioner in Nairobi (though not the one in the novel!). The present one was a Labour Cabinet Minister. All have their knighthoods or places in the Lords for loyal services rendered to the state, rather than to human knowledge.
What struck a contemporary chord most, though, was the way that, even before our cancel culture, what one can only call “The Establishment,” in the form of the Military-Industrial complex, conspires in the book to silence anything that disturbs its chosen narrative. The press coverage of the murder of the aid worker, for example, is frighteningly similar to the way that more recent news events begin, as you investigate them, to yield strange stories of complicity in untruth between governments and their intelligence services, the international bodies, and the media (especially the UK’s state broadcaster, the BBC).
One example of that is the evidence that alleged poison gas attacks by Syrian government forces were in fact staged for political reasons by us, with the complicity of on-the-ground BBC journalists. These are roundly dismissed, of course, as “conspiracy theories,” just as they are in Le Carré’s novel, particularly by the BBC.
The UK’s Freedom of Information Act was passed in the year the novel was completed, but enquiries about such embarrassing matters are still met with the brick wall of “National Security,” a bit like Hilary Clinton’s e-mails, I suppose. In fact, a special unit has been recently set up in the Cabinet Office, far larger now than that of Le Carré, to which departments send any such difficult questions to be expertly obfuscated.
The treatment of the novel’s scientific whistleblower is a particularly familiar situation nowadays, and ought to be an education for us all on how to interpret current events. The actual discoverer of the damaging drug in the story, a brilliant Russian woman now contracted to a large pharmaceutical concern for its development, begins to discover its serious side effects. Palmed off by her employer, who is conducting the trials, she publishes a paper calling for further investigation.
In short order, two papers by leading medical researchers, denying both her claims and her competence, appear in the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine (how coincidental that these are the very same prestigious journals that so readily published hit-pieces on chloroquine during the present pandemic, and then had to retract them! Who paid for the fake research, and who paid these leading journals to treat the papers so uncritically and, to this day, sideline a cheap, safe and possibly useful treatment for COVID? Nobody’s saying at the Lancet.
Back in the fictional world, her company’s lawyers remind her icily of the confidentiality clause she signed in her contract, and adjure her on pain of prosecution to stop providing “misinformation” (as in Facebook policy) to her patients about the risks. She begins to receive anonymous death threats. Before long she is sacked, and the pharmaceutical corporation puts it about that she was only a lab-assistant in search of fame rather than the actual discoverer of the drug. Then her university finds reasons to down-grade, and subsequently sack her.
It’s astonishing how one finds all these very things going on not only with respect to scientists and medics daring to question the official narrative on COVID, but with respect to other politically- and commercially-charged subjects like climate change (and related matters like Peter Ridd’s work on the Great Barrier Reef and Susan Crockford’s on polar bears – both sacked and vilified under comparable circumstances), Intelligent Design and even more obviously medical concerns such as the lipid hypothesis in cardiovascular disease, with its associated lucrative statin therapy. We regularly see Nobel prize-winners labelled as incompetents, Wikipedia pages doctored to erase their qualifications, and allegations made about receipt of money from oil companies or right-wing groups.
What is most saddening is that such formulaic lies are believed, even by other scientists, let alone a gullible public. Were it not for counter-examples like the MMR scandal and autism, it is tempting to believe that wherever one finds such tactics of suppression of scientific expression, one is looking at a racket. One has only to follow the money to prove it. Even in the case of MMR, it would seem prudent to examine the research very carefully, simply because of the nature of the rebuttals and the profits being made by the pharmaceuticals corporations asking us to trust them.
But why would Big Pharma, committed to healing the sick, have a tendency to act unethically? I can’t say, with any authority. Why does Big Oil have the dire reputation it has? Or the Big Banks? Why do the obscenely rich Silicon Valley corporations exploit their junior staff, rob and destroy their competitors and suppress those who disagree with their political agendas? In the end it is about power, and power is often most easily gained under a pretense of philanthropy, of which these guys all pretend plenty.
The modern pharmaceutical industry, after all, was begun by John D. Rockefeller, whose father was an actual snake-oil salesman. The development and use of patent drugs began to form the core of the medical profession once Rockefeller had bought out the medical schools, at the expense of the more affordable herbal and dietary approaches it displaced.
I saw the effects of that throughout my medical career, from the pushing of expensive patented clopidogrel over low-dose aspirin in cardiovascular disorders, to the downplaying of cheap old amitriptyline in favour of pricey new agents for neuropathic pain. We were so addicted to pharmaceuticals, whether doctors or patients, that generic BNF glucose and salt for diarrhoea, priced in mere pence, could not even be obtained at pharmacies (I know, because I frequently tried), but only the expensive branded sachets charging for flavouring and the Sanofi-Aventis multinational name.
It’s easy to be aware of these shenanigans when some scandal like thalidomide or Pandemix or Opren eventually comes to light (the latter I’m pleased to say I had refused to prescribe from the start, suspicious of the hyped marketing. Sometimes non-conformity pays off). It’s less easy to spot them when the propaganda is in full-swing, as it has been over the last year through goverment, media and a deliberately cultivated public paranoia beyond anything Le Carré ever wrote.
The induced fear appears to plug all the many gaps in the Matrix, from the blatant misuse of models and statistics and the deliberate fear-mongering by Matt Hancock this week by the weaponisation of viral mutability, to the constant failure to put the epidemic in context as producing only the 7th worse death rate of the last 20 years. We have even forgotten the WHO scandal of 2009-10, but all the same signs are plain to see – at least for anyone who has read The Constant Gardener.
I’ll close with a link to a publication from a member of the organisation on which the author, he said, based his small and impecunious investigative group, Hippo. This is the BUKO Pharma Campaign, based in Germany, whose public health scientist Jörg Schaaber has written this piece on the search for a COVID vaccine, in its political and commercial context.