NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - About 50 members of Doctors Without Borders protested outside Johnson & Johnson's global headquarters this afternoon, calling on the pharmaceutical giant to lower the price of the tuberculosis medicine, bedaquiline.
Many of the members dressed in white lab coats and shook noisemakers made from repurposed prescription pill bottles filled with coffee beans.
Standing about 100 feet from the front entrance to Johnson & Johnson's 16-story building, the protestors brandished signs with slogans such as "What good is a lifesaving drug if the people who need it can't get it?" They also chanted "Pills cost pennies, dreams cost lives" and "Hey, hey, ho, ho, corporate greed has got to go."
Other protestors turned toward the passing traffic and displayed their signs to motorists - several of whom honked their horns in support.
According to Jess Brown, spokesperson for the nonprofit humanitarian medical organization known for its projects in developing countries to combat endemic diseases, members of Doctors Without Borders were also protesting outside Johnson & Johnson offices in South Africa, Brazil, Belgium, Ukraine and Spain.
At the heart of these protests is a little pill called bedaquiline, one of three new drugs developed to treat tuberculosis over the past 50 years. According to a press release from Doctors Without Borders, bedaquiline was developed using taxpayer money, so it is calling on Johnson & Johnson to make the drug available at no more than $1 per day.
Sharonann Lynch, the HIV/TB policy advisor for Doctors Without Borders, also known internationally as Médecins Sans Frontières, doctors such as the ones that lined the Albany Street sidewalk, have had to watch patients die because the cost of the life-saving medicine was too high.
"There are people dying without access to this drug unnecessarily," she said. "We have been treating people with TB with this drug. We know the difference between the old therapies and the new therapies. Some of these doctors out here today, you better believe we're going to continue to protest because we see the difference in the lives of our patients."
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tuberculosis is caused by bacteria that most often affect the lungs. It is one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide. In 2017, 10 million people fell ill with TB and 1.6 million died. It is the leading killer of HIV-positive people.
Tuberculosis is curable and preventable, which is why the WHO has targeted ending what it calls the "TB epidemic" by 2030.
In a statement provided to TAPinto New Brunswick, Seema Kumar, vice president of innovation, global health and policy communication at Johnson & Johnson said, "We share MSF’s goal of ensuring that bedaquiline reaches all patients who need it, and is available in more than 130 countries at a not-for-profit price of $400 -- which is on par with or even cheaper than some generic medicines used to treat TB.
"Over the past four years, we have partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development and JSC Pharmstandard, to provide 105,000 courses of treatment, free of charge to 80 countries in greatest need of the therapy," Kumar said.
According to the statement, Johnson & Johnson "fully funded all 14 studies that were included in the initial submission that supported the regulatory approval of bedaquiline by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – including 11 Phase I studies and 3 Phase II studies. All revenues generated are reinvested to support the global manufacturing and distribution of this drug and even more importantly, the surveillance programs to safeguard the antibiotic’s effectiveness."
This isn't the first time members of Doctors Without Borders have staged a protest in New Brunswick. They also protested across the street from the Hyatt Regency on Albany Street where Johnson & Johnson stockholders held their annual meeting in April.
While the cost of medicine has been a hot button issue across the globe, closer to New Brunswick, Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. (NJ-06) has pushed for lower prescription drug costs.
He was recently joined by Senator Vin Gopal, Assemblywoman Joann Downey, Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, Brendon Blake from AARP New Jersey and Maura Collingsgru of New Jersey Citizen Action at a press conference in Long Branch.
Last month, Pallone introduced H.R. 3, the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, which will lower prescription drug costs by empowering the federal government to negotiate lower prices for Americans.
According to a press release from Pallone's office, the legislation would stop "drug companies from ripping off Americans and charging them more than other countries for the same drugs." It would also create a new, $2,000 out-of-pocket limit on prescription drug costs for seniors through Medicare Part D.