Police guard WHO official after assaults and threats John Vidal Friday August 31, 2001 The Guardian A senior international civil servant has been attacked and
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, Aug 31, 2001
Police guard WHO official after assaults and
threats John Vidal
Friday August 31, 2001 The
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
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,
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
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.