In December 2023, Livemint ran a headline claiming that the US had recalled ‘bad’ Indian medications, sparking concerns about the quality and safety of Indian pharmaceutical products. However, this negative spin on Indian pharma in the media was not the only misleading instance of the narrative that has been forming for years.
In July 2022, the world witnessed a tragic incident in Gambia, where several children died allegedly due to Indian-made cough syrup. This news was initially broken by Reuters and Al Jazeera, followed by Indian media outlets. The story quickly gained traction, with headlines screaming that Indian medicine had killed Gambian children. However, the reality was far from what the headlines suggested.
The Gambian authorities later disclosed that many of the children alleged to have been killed by Indian medicine hadn’t even consumed it. Instead, multiple deaths in the same hospital and region were attributed to sanitation and water issues, which were unfortunately not uncommon in the area. Despite the lack of concrete evidence linking Indian medicine to the deaths in The Gambia, the propaganda continued. In December 2022, a Casualty Assessment Committee, comprising experts from the US and Gambia, found no traces of harmful materials in the majority of the children.
In March 2023, CDC Africa issued a report accusing Indian medicine, correlating it with the old WHO advisory about medicines containing Diethylene Glycol. Interestingly, CDC Africa had received USD 500,000 from George Soros, a prominent India-basher, in 2020 for two years. Even after all the controversy, as late as June 2023, the World Health Organization could not confirm whether Gambian deaths were associated with Indian medicine. Nevertheless, the purpose of creating doubt and media frenzy had been achieved.
In July 2023, Bloomberg uncovered concerning instances of ‘bad Indian medicine’ in Iraq after conducting tests on samples from six different countries. This revelation shed light on Americans’ involvement in Iraq, prompting further investigation into the matter. It was discovered that Bloomberg had sent these samples to the US firm Valisure for testing. However, Valisure’scredibility came into question as it had previously fabricated reports in 2019 regarding another medication, Zantac, and had been reprimanded by a US Court for using unreliable methods. The plot thickened when it was revealed that in 2022, US authorities had issued warnings to Valisure for their invalid methods and subpar equipment.
The Gambian and Iraqi incidents were neither isolated cases nor mutually exclusive; they were part of a larger pattern. Similar stories began to emerge from different parts of the world, creating a global narrative that Indian medicine was subpar and potentially harmful. What made this pattern even more remarkable was that ‘bad’ Indian medicine was found in one country in each region, from Africa to West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, and beyond. It provided the perfect backdrop for a global narrative that Indian medicine was of questionable quality.
In this intricate web of pharmaceutical intrigue, the protagonist emerged in the form of Dinesh Thakur, a renowned pharma expert and activist who had gained fame for exposing Ranbaxy in 2003 and later founded the Thakur Family Foundation (TFF). The Thakur Family Foundation had two other directors, Dinesh Kasthuril and Venkat Swaminathan, both of whom had worked for Bristol-Myers Squibb before joining Ranbaxy and later returned to the US. Thakur and his gang, brimming with patriotic fervor, kissed their cushy American jobs goodbye and returned to their beloved India to join forces with Ranbaxy in 2002. But wait, Thakur couldn’t resist the allure of the good ol’ U.S. of A, so he snagged himself a shiny American citizenship.
They served their motherland by playing pivotal roles in ‘exposing’ Ranbaxy to the US FDA. It was in 2002 when Ranbaxy and Pfizer had a dispute over the generic version of Pfizer product Lipitor in the US. Thakur and gang exposed Ranbaxy during this crucial dispute, which was fined USD 500 million by the FDA. And Thakur was awarded USD 48.6 million by the same FDA for this heroic act.
The Ranbaxy escapade merely fueled Thakur’s unquenchable thirst for “exposing” other Indian pharma companies. So, he decided to stick to his newfound passion for pharmaceutical activism and, in 2018, introduced the Thakur Family Foundation (TFF). TFF has graciously funded several organization inclusingSucheta Dalal’s MoneyLife Foundation and Association for Rural and Urban Needy Safai Karmachari Andolan which helped blossom Thakur’s reputation.
TFF funded various individuals and institutions in India, including media outlets, civil groups, and legal institutions. These grants raised questions about potential media collusion and the influence of foreign entities on Indian narratives. One media outlet that received both funding and support from TFF was The Wire. The Wire’s founder, Siddharth Varadarajan, had a long-standing association with Thakur, and the outlet received significant grants from TFF. It became a prominent voice against Indian pharma and generic medicine, favoring foreign alternatives. TFF-backed journalists became the mouthpiece for Thakur’s ideological leanings. A name that outshines all is Priyanka Pulla of The Wire, who subsequently switched to Bloomberg, the same news organization that had ‘exposed’ bad Indian medicines in Iraq in 2023.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, The Wire’s coverage, particularly by journalists funded by TFF, was overwhelmingly negative, consistently highlighting issues with Indian medicine and vaccines while downplaying foreign counterparts like China and Pakistan. Pakistan, a cash-strapped nation with absolutely zero policies to cope up with the pandemic, received praises and applause for its handling of COVID-19. This biased reporting contributed to the propaganda against Indian pharmaceuticalsthat was spearheaded by western countries and their media houses. The reason was simple- most developed western nations had suffered huge losses during the pandemic which put them in a bad light. To deflect attention, Western media intensified its scrutiny of India, vilifying its healthcare and pharmaceutical industries to bolster their own image. The Wire and other entities associated with Thakur, with their affinity for all-things-west, advocated for foreign vaccines over Indian ones, despite similar challenges faced by both. The narrative painted Indian vaccines as ‘risky’ while ignoring potential issues with foreign vaccines.
The orchestrated campaign against Indian pharma and medicine was not just about profits but also about tarnishing India’s image on the global stage. Thakur and his associates sought to undermine the credibility of India’s pharmaceutical industry, Ayurveda, and even Indian vaccines. The narrative of ‘bad’ Indian medicine and pharmaceuticals is part of a larger strategy to discredit India and its contributions to healthcare. The media’s role in perpetuating these narratives and the influence of foreign entities on Indian narratives cannot be ignored. It highlights the need for critical media analysis and the importance of discerning fact from propaganda in today’s interconnected world.