THE LIFE of great leaders

Revista Estilo de Vida 

Germán Velásquez, the former WHO official fighting for universal health

Germán Velázquez, a native from Manizales, has carried out missions ranging from the democratization of medicines to the non-privatization of the UN’s global agency.

Interview: Claudia M. Gómez –


Magazine Estilo de Vida by Claudia M. Gómez  – Writing: Pilar Bolivar – Photo: Germán Velázquez

In an estate built more than a century ago in the town closest to Geneva, Switzerland, there lives a Colombian who has so far held the highest position in the World Health Organization. Today, along with his wife -his partner and ally-, his  four  children  and  his exquisite  library  (which,  in  addition  to  his  doctoral  thesis  on economics  at  the  Sorbonne,  his  WHO  Red  Book  on  copyright patent  exceptions  and  his  honorary  investiture  granted  in  2015 by  the  School  of  Medicine  at  Madrid’s  Complutense  University, preserves  some  pre-Columbian  guacas),  Germán  Velásquez continues  his  tireless  fight  for  access  to  universal  health.

Magazine Estilo de Vida by Claudia M. Gómez  – Photo: Germán Velázquez

He has been doing it for a decade as an analyst, having served as Coordinator of the Medicines Program at the  WHO  headquarters in Geneva, and now serving as Special Adviser on Policy and Health at South Center, an intergovernmental organization based in the Swiss capital that advises 54 developing countries.  I spent 20 years at the WHO;  I left 10 years ago, and in my current position, half of my job is to track what’s going on at the WHO, so now I know it inside out even more than when I used to work there”, said Velazquez with his strong Manizales accent, who is also a philosopher from the Javeriana University and defines himself as a “child pampered by life,” by having gotten his battles not only to cause blisters in the global governments and health systems, but also to have guided him throughout a career that he  “modestly  acknowledges,  has  been  quite  successful  and   brilliant”,  claims the health ‘Robin Hood’ who has been a victim of intimidation for defending his ideals and the fundamental human rights.

Magazine Estilo de Vida by Claudia M. Gómez  

– CLAUDIA M GÓMEZ: How has that skillful combination of philosophy and economics served health?
GERMÁN VELÁSQUEZ:  When I finished philosophy, I was thinking of going to Europe to study a master’s degree in political science. When I realized that I had a diploma in philosophy from the Javeriana University and that if I would have combined it with political science I was going to die of hunger because I wouldn’t get a job, then my friends advised me to study economics.
I pursued a master’s degree in economics at the Sorbonne and then looked for work. By chance of life I found one in a pharmaceutical company in Indonesia; then they transferred me to Belgium and then to Switzerland (Lugano), and during those three years with that american  pharmaceutical  company,  I  realized  a  series  of aberrations  regarding  pharmaceutical  industry  practices. I discovered with surprise and pain, that it was not an industry at the health service, but rather at the service of particular benefits and with commercial interests over public health.
– CMG:  Hence  your  Masters’  thesis  at  the  Sorbonne  on the  pharmaceutical  industry?
GV:  Yes; I decided to leave that pharmaceutical company so that, with that 3-year experience, I could undertake a doctorate at the Sorbonne. When I withdrew, I met who my wife is today; she was going to do a thesis in anthropology in Mozambique and told me to go with her, but I said, ‘if you find me a job, I will go with you’, and she had the opportunity to see the Minister  of Health  of Mozambique  at  a  conference  he gave  in  Paris,  after  which  he  said:  ‘I need  someone  who  can  advise  me  to  build  a  pharmaceutical  industry’ and  Christine  (my wife)  came  up  to  him  and  told  him about me.  
The minister told her to send him my curriculum and after a week, when I was 25 years old, I was the Private Counselor of the Minister of Health of Mozambique. While working, I also continued with my thesis at the Sorbonne, and after three and a half years I went to Paris to present it, being one of the first papers published in France with a review on the pharmaceutical industry.
It  was  titled  The  Medicine  Industry  and  the  Third  World. I presented it and substantiated at the Sorbonne, and for its quality, it was published by a well-known French publishing house. I went back to Mozambique and after a month I was called by Christine’s parents to tell me that there was a half-page article about my book in Le  Monde  newspaper;  it was no less than a review by Alfred Sauvy, who explained that it was a high-quality book, giving it a lot of praise. Ever since then, I have never had to look for a job, and I’ve always been offered job offers. That’s why I’ve been a spoiled child.

Magazine Estilo de Vida by Claudia M. Gómez  – Photo: Germán Velázquez –  Institutions related to GV: – – – – – Invima Colombia

– CMG:  And  how  did  you  get  to  the  WHO?
GV:  After three years in Mozambique, I received a job offer from the WHO and another one from the European Union; the latter seemed interesting to me because it was a project in Mali about restructuring the pharmaceutical sector. I wanted to stay in Africa, as I came from working in Mozambique, a country that had recently become independent from Portugal, but now I was going to a Francophone country at the other end of the continent. I was there three years during the 1990s, and while I was working in Mali, the Colombian health minister at the time knew about me – perhaps from the book or from someone who told him about me, I think a friend, Mauricio Trujillo Restrepo.
One  day,  I  received   a message  from  the  WHO  saying that  the  Colombia’s  Health  Minister  had  requested  that  I  evaluate  the  country’s  drug  system.  When I saw this with my wife (who loves Colombia), we decided to leave Mali for this five-month mission in Colombia consisting of reviewing the medicine supply system together with the National Health Institute, the Invima and the Ministry of Health. I  did  the  report  that  was  well  received,  and the  WHO  liked  it  so  much  that  it  called  me  to  work  there. 
– CMG:  And  this  is  how  your  career  began  at  the  UN  Health  Agency?
GV:  Yes; I was given a position in which I would basically be responsible for the WHO drug program in Latin America; my wife told me to accept the position as long as it was in any Latin American country, because if we were to have children someday (which we did), she did not want to raise them up under the Swiss system, then I stated that condition; that took place 30 years ago, and since then I never left the WHO again. I  was  the  director  of  the  drug  program,  and  for  the last  seven  or  eight  years  that  I   was at  the  WHO,  I was  the  director  of  a  secretariat  on  public  health  and  intellectual  property  from  the  WHO  directorate-general office.  I got to a pretty high position.

Magazine Estilo de Vida by Claudia M. Gómez  

– CMG:  And  during  your  latter  position,  did  you  receive intimidation  and  threats?
GV: Yes, during the last few years I had attacks that started in Rio de Janeiro; I was at the Ministry of Health giving some lectures, and at night when I left the hotel, two young men grabbed me and cut off my watch (Swatch-brand with no value); they also took away the blazer I was wearing and no more. I was close to the hotel and walked in very quickly; I didn’t get scared because I thought it was a robbery, as it could happen to anyone in Rio, Sao Paulo or in any other city. I was more concerned about the blood that was falling on a nice mat that was at the hotel entrance than for what just had happened to me. I went to a hospital to be taken care of, and the next day I traveled to Miami where I would have a very important meeting for the  WHO  restructuring,  which  had  been  scheduled  by  the  then-incoming  director  WHO   was   also  the  former  Norwegian  Prime  Minister,  Gro  Harlem  Brundtland  (she was the Director General from 1998 to 2003).
I arrived the day before, checked in at the hotel and went to a restaurant for dinner; coming out of there, two adults cornered me at the entrance of a building, kicked me and put a gun on my neck saying to me: ‘we expect you have understood the lesson you were taught in Rio de Janeiro and stop criticizing the pharmaceutical industry’. Rio’s incident had happened almost 24 hours before, so I realized there was something set up.
– CMG:  What  did  they  tell  you  at  the  WHO?
GV:  The  WHO  took  a  rather  absurd  attitude,  but  after several  years  I  clearly  understood  it;  they  told  me  to  be quiet  and  totally  secretive.  I didn’t think it was reasonable but understood they wanted to avoid an outrage. Then I received a series of phone intimidations and asked to intercept my phone, for which I had to request an authorization from the French Ministry of Interior, which in turn requested an investigation that lasted more than a year. Upon returning to Geneva, the Director-General offered me to change my position to one of the same or even higher level in order to protect me. I told them:  “don’t  think  about  changing  my  job  to  a  different  one  after  I have  invested  more  than  20  years  of  my  life  in  the  fight for  medicines”.  I was then given security conditions, among them, to always travel with bodyguards.
– CMG:  Have  you  always  been  supported  by  the  WHO?
GV:  I was aware they were threats to intimidate me and wouldn’t kill me; however, all the outrage around gave a lot of visibility to the work I was doing and what the WHO was doing in that field, and for that reason there was a lot of support from the organization.  There. were  even  several  attempts  by  the  United  States  Government  (pushed  by  the  pharmaceutical  industry)  to  get  me  out  of  the  WHO.  That director always supported me, but then other directors that came along thought Velasquez was too inconvenient for the WHO, and when there were plans to change my position, countries like China, Brazil and Indonesia and the South African region always supported me.
– CMG:  Why  did  governments  decide  on  behalf  of  the WHO?
GV:  The WHO is an intergovernmental body, a UN agency that belongs to the countries, it is like the ministry of health of the world and as such, it should be financed by public funds, by the governments.

Magazine Estilo de Vida by Claudia M. Gómez  

– CMG:  But  WHO  is  known  to  receive  private  donations
GV:  Since its founding in 1948, this agency has been 100 percent dependent on mandatory contributions from the 194 member countries. In recent years, far less than 20 percent (some say as much as 12 percent) consists of countries’ mandatory public contributions, and the rest is private sector money resulting from non-regular, non-mandatory but rather voluntary contributions. That is, countries like England, France, the United States and many Nordic countries give their mandatory public share from the regular budget, but on top of that they give millions of dollars that they claim are voluntary to be used in some program.
– CMG:  Does  that  mean  that  by  giving  such  large  donations they  make  decisions?
GV:  You are absolutely right. The first decision they want is that the money be invested in what they want, and if the contribution is very important, they order an advisory committee or a body to give advice to the program to which they give so much money, and thus they take ideological and political control of the program. The last thing is that the  WHO’s  second  donor  is  the  Bill  and  Melinda  Gates  Foundation.
– CMG:  Given  that  it  is  the  second  largest  donor,  how  does Bill  Gates  influence  the  WHO?
GV: There is a risk that it will be the first one, since the United States announced they will withdraw, and if their withdrawal is confirmed, the first major donor would be Bill Gates. WHO has several scientific committees: the policy maker for the fight against AIDS, the committee for the fight against malaria, etc.; and Gates, because he wants to be on all technical committees for investing so much money, he also wants to get involved as an observer, other times he asks for the right to speak, and in other committees he is given the right to vote.

Magazine Estilo de Vida by Claudia M. Gómez  – Photo: Germán Velázquez

– CMG:  Does  he  decide  on  the  medicines  to  be  prescribed  to  patients  worldwide?
GV:  Of  course,  even  representatives  of  the  Bill  and  Melinda Gates  Foundation  are  on  the  committees  that  make  decisions and  create  health  policies;  so, he can decide which drugs are going to start taking hypertensive patients; although there is a technical committee of experts who study and make these decisions, Bill and Melinda Gates also give their opinion. And if they and their representatives, as can and does happen (because they don’t have the money under the mattress but in the real world, in the pharmaceutical and food industry), recommend worldwide that for some disease a certain medication be consumed and/or prescribed,  a  brutal  conflict  of  interest  arises  because  they  will  tip  the  balance  in  their  favor,  recommending  a  medication  from  some  firm  where  they  have  shares,  that  is,  if  sales  rise  astronomically,  they  also  get  more  money.  The independence of the WHO recommendations and regulations on public health at the global level is being lost for commercial, financial and economic reasons.
– CMG:  Some  Italian  doctors  (specifically  a  doctor  from Florence,  Italy)  claim.  That  Bill  Gates  in  partnership  with  the  WHO  in  recent  years  has  manipulated  several  patents  on  medical  devices  that  can  help  in  public  health.  What  do  you  know  about  this  regard?
GV:  Since he is the richest man in the world, he manages to make financial and copyright-protection manipulations from which he can get some profit; for example, a small company, a small laboratory is developing a medicine that could be very interesting, and since he is the richest man in the world, he goes ahead and buys the laboratory, launches the product and becomes more millionaire.
 But  Bill  and  Melinda  Gates  are  not  the  only  example,  and  there  is   another recent  case.  A  drug  that  can  cure  Hepatitis C -with which  70  million people  in  the  world  are  sick-  called  Sofosbuvit,  intended  to  cure  a  patient  with  a  3-month  treatment,  was  being developed  by  a  small  American  pharmaceutical  industry.
They had not yet produced the medicine but through espionage, another American firm (Gilead, the one that swindled us
by selling to us the Tamiflú drug to treat the AH1N1 flu) bought the entire laboratory because it knew that this potentially curative drug was on the list of things they were researching. They bought, developed the product and launched it on the market for a value worth 84 thousand dollars the treatment to cure Hepatitis C, when the production costs of the 3-month treatment were only 100 dollars.

Magazine Estilo de Vida by Claudia M. Gómez  

– CMG: I  understand  they  don’t  just  tamper  drug  patents.  I’m  aware  of  the  case  of  an  Italian  doctor  who  invested  8  million  euros  in  a  medical  device  for  birth  safety,  helping  uterine  contractions  without  causing  harm  to  mother  and  baby  and  eliminating  KRISTELLER  MANEUVER,  but  when  it  was  to  be  launched  on  the market,  something  happened  with  the  WHO  and  Bill  Gates,  and  the  development  of  the  medical  device  was  halted.
GVWe  could  go  further;   I know  the  pharmaceutical  industry  issue  because  it  has  been  my  field,  but  if  you  think,  for  example,   of the  food  industry,  the  drama  is  even  worse;  the  lobbies  and  pressures  are  gigantic,  and  the  WHO  would be supposed to bring out regulations for the use of additives, colorants and sugar in food,  but   the industry  is  opposed  because  if  the  agency  orders  that  soft  drinks must  have  much  less  sugar   than they  actually  do,  they would be less addictive and sales would go down. It’s another battle the WHO lost. Even the food industry is more powerful than the pharmaceutical one. And the worst thing is that Bill and Melinda Gates also have their money in the food industry, surely, they may have shares in McDonald’s and Coca Cola, and these ‘unhealthy’ industries are financing the WHO thus creating a conflict of interest.
– CMG:  In  your  opinion,  how  do you think  the  WHO  is  handling  the  health  crisis  unleashed  by  COVID-19?
GV:  Their attempt to manage it has been very interesting.  The  tragedy  is  that  no  one  is  listening  to  them  and  countries  are  doing  whatever  they  want.  To be able to take back the reins and say we are the world’s health agency, ministry and government and so, let me legislate, is the challenge for the  WHO.  For six months now, the World Health Organization has been advising that a 14-day quarantine is needed; but for economic reasons, France and other countries claimed that 14 days was a lot of time in economic terms, because if the worker was supposed to stay home that long, it would be very serious financially, and that’s why they brought it down to seven days. The  WHO  responded: ‘it’s absurd, everyone needs 14 days’, but the French Parliament held its seven-day decision and did not take the WHO advise into account.
Now, if you go to the  WHO  website, you will find lots of material where the same agency makes direct recommendations for the general public; it’s the first time in history that this happens. The WHO used to explain to governments and now it is explaining to the individual, to the ordinary citizen: sneeze like this, wash like this, put your mask on like this, etc. They are doing health education from the Organization to the individual and no longer to the state.
– CMG:  It  is  said  the  WHO  has  mishandled  the  pandemic.
GV:  Europeans have not criticized the WHO; on the contrary, they have supported it to the point that in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she would double the financial contribution.  The  only  one  who  is  making  a  frontal  attack  on  the  WHO  is  Trump  saying  that  the  organization  is  in  the  hands  of  China,  that  the  United  States  will  withdraw,  etc.
– CMG:  The  foregoing  is  not  true.  If  Trump  remains  in  power,  he  will  not  withdraw  support  for  the  WHO;  his  threats  are  his  strategy.
GV:  I don’t know,  this  guy  is  so  crazy  that  he  can  withdraw,  because  his  hunted  war  is  not  with  the  WHO  but  with  the  multilateral  system.  The United States wants to get way from the WHO, the World Trade Organization, the Intellectual Property Organization, the Climate Change Agreement.  wherever everyone  is,  he  doesn’t  want  to  be.

Magazine Estilo de Vida by Claudia M. Gómez  

– CMG:  What  do  you  think  about  the  pandemic  denialists?
GV:  I will tell you an anecdote. There is a very popular Spanish magazine called  Salud  Discovery;  for particular reasons, they took a denialist stance on the pandemic; for them, it’s a lie. They called me for an interview but I refused, because I am aware of the statistical data on the effects of the pandemic and I cannot deny it. I was offered to post a large article clarifying that I am an expert opposed to the magazine’s stance, with the intention of having my voice as an advocate for vaccines (they don’t believe in them either) by considering them as the most important instruments in public health. And this is only one case,  because  there  are  many  movements  denying  the  existence  of  the  pandemic,  which  I  find  to  be  a  total  shame  because  that  means  going  against  science  and assuming that vaccines will not work, that they will poison us and that Bill Gates wants to kill people, etc.
– CMG: NAbove  all,  these  positions  are  adopted  by  some  doctors  and  even  scientists  
GVScientists  very  much  in  quotes,  and   physicians  probably paid, because someone serious who has an independent point of view and is a public health researcher or a physician cannot, at this point, deny the benefits of vaccines or the existence of a pandemic. Polio has been one of the most tragic diseases of humankind, as it was painful for people to keep crawling on the streets; and look at the fact that it was a vaccine the one that eradicated poliomyelitis. Today, if I find (which I do) couples who do not want to vaccinate their children, I tell them they are crazy. This denial of the pandemic or of vaccines is something that is harmful and has little credibility because it has no scientific basis.
– CMG:  As   an expert,  what  do  you  think  when   you  are  told  that  the  coronavirus  is not  a  virus,  but  a  bacterium?
GV:  It’s  an  Olympic  lie.  They are two totally different things and now there are a number of scientists who have characterized it as such, since it is a virus of a not unknown family; it has new characteristics and the symptoms from it are those of an acute respiratory disease, like a flu, which like this one is produced by a virus rather than by a bacterium. And this has been recognized in science and medicine for more than 30 years. To say that it was created in the laboratory does not make sense either; the Chinese have been clear about the origin of all this, and even the virus DNA was communicated by Chinese scientists to the rest of the world.
– CMG:  And  what  do  you  think  of  the  use  of  the  facemask?  Is  it  a  personal  protection  aid?
GV:  It’s absolutely fundamental. Anyone who is in a public place and can’t keep a distance of  1.50 m  must use it.  What  happened  was  that  when  the WHO  had  to  explain  this,  European  countries  like  France  and  England  didn’t  have  enough  masks,  so  governments  told  the  organization  not  to  give  that  guideline,  but  when  they  started  to  increase  their  stock,  the  WHO  claimed  it  was  essential;  then it stated that it was intended only for health workers and vulnerable people; then that it was for everyone in public places, where people could not respect distancing. From the beginning, the World Health Organization must have recognized its mandatory use, explaining there were not enough masks for everyone.

Magazine Estilo de Vida by Claudia M. Gómez  –  Photo: El Espectador 

– CMG:  Why  in  2020  in  England,  France,  Germany  and  Italy  did  people  shout  that  the  mask  didn’t  work  and  even  burned  it  in  Italy  as  a  sign  of  protest  against  its  ineffectiveness?
GV:   What some  people  do  in  Europe  is  complaining  after  assuming  that  it  is  an  attack  on  people’s  freedom.  If you put up a warning, a rule or a prohibition that if someone jumps off a bridge,  he/she  risks  death,  do   you think  that  is  an  attack  on  freedom?   The evidence  that  if   someone jumps  off  a  bridge,  he/she   kills himself/herself  is  the  same  evidence  that  someone  who  does  not  wear   a mask  can infect himself and others, and it is a deadly contamination.  The  mask  bothers  me  endlessly,  and  every  time  I  go to  the  supermarket  or  the bakery,  I  forget it  and  I   have to  go  back  home  for  it. – – – – Invima Colombia

– CMG:  Finally,  what  do  you  think  about  the management  of  the  pandemic  in  Colombia?
GV:  I will be cautious because I haven’t lived in Colombia for 40 years and what I can say is that echoes come to me from different places, and that’s why I want to be careful and respectful. For 25 years I have followed what the Ministry of Health does, because of the relations I have had (very good) with the Government, as they ask me for my concept about some very good things they do there. The fact that Colombia, like many other countries, is putting its hopes  in  COVAX  (which  is  an   international fund  where  vaccines  are  pre-purchased)  is  a  sign  of  naivety,  because  it  is  an  agency  manipulated  by  the  industry   and financial  parties.  Their naivety is also based on believing that by giving funds to COVAX, the vaccine will reach them tomorrow; it will come first to industrialized countries like the United States, Japan, European countries, etc. The vaccine will not arrive in Colombia before March or April 2021 they will not arrive (in the best of cases).

AQUÍ: en un solo CLICK  

DESCARGA EL PDF de la revista completa

Revista El Arte de la SALUD