Police guard WHO official after assaults and threats
- Police guard WHO official after assaults and threats
Friday August 31, 2001
A senior international civil servant has been attacked and threatened with death on three continents in the past three months in what appears to be a crude attempt to subvert his investigations into the pricing policies of the pharmaceutical industry.
German Velasquez, head of the drug action programme at the World Health Organisation in Geneva and a leading critic of the industry's policy of denying affordable drugs to poor countries, is being guarded by the police and told not to talk about what has happened.
Dr Velasquez, who is coordinating a WHO investigation into the industry's pricing of life-saving drugs in developing countries, was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the end of May for a meeting when he was attacked by two unidentified individuals and had his arm slashed by a knife.
Believing that this was little more than a mugging, he travelled to Miami for another WHO meeting on economic restructuring.
On the eve of the conference he was pursued down a road and attacked by two men. They waved a pistol, threatened him with death and kicked him to the ground.
As they left, one shouted: "We hope you learned the lesson of Rio. Stop criticising the pharmaceutical industry."
Dr Velasquez, a Sorbonne-trained Colombian economist, reported the incident to the Miami police, the UN in New York and the WHO's offices in Geneva before travelling back to Switzerland.
Ten days later he was telephoned in the middle of the night at his home in France. The caller asked, "Are you afraid?" and when Dr Velasquez asked him to identify himself, said only, "Lincoln Road, Miami".
The same man telephoned on the eve of a meeting of the World Commerce Organisation, where Dr Velasquez was due to talk about the right to health and the rights to intellectual property on pharmaceuticals. He was warned not to attend, and was again threatened.
His wife confirmed the incidents yesterday, and said that her husband had been told by the WHO to say nothing. The organisation refuses to deny or confirm that the incidents took place.
The WHO is split between those who do not want to embarrass the drug companies, and want to work with them to reform their pricing policies in developing countries, and those who believe that exposure of their activities by campaigning groups such as Oxfam and Médecins sans Frontières is the best way to achieve change.
"It is terrifically sensitive", a source close to the WHO said yesterday. "There is an inflammatory situation in the global pharmaceutical industry. The trade rules are being rewritten and Velasquez is an overtly political civil servant."
Dr Velasquez has a long history of trying to reform the industry and has consistently taken a stance in support of the developing world.
He has written many papers on drug financing in developing countries and criticised the power exercised by the drug companies. In the 1980s, with another author, he wrote a "red book" of drugs that developing countries needed, but this was unacceptable to the companies and was rewritten.
Oxfam confirmed yesterday that it had been briefed by the French police at Dr Velasquez's insistence.
"It is a strange affair," Phil Bloomer of Oxfam International said. "It is very crude. No one quite knows what any one is trying to gain out of this."
An associate of Dr Velasquez who asked not to be named said: "I cannot believe any of the large drug companies would do this. It is not to their advantage in any way."
The only known case of outright intimidation by a company was in the 80s when a whistle-blower exposed the alleged price-fixing of a Swiss company to the EU but was effectively shopped and later imprisoned for contravening the law on confidentiality. His wife committed suicide.
Yesterday the French police confirmed that they were investigating.
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