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Big Pharma is not good for your health

Swine flu is big business for pharmaceuticals like Roche, the manufacturer of the antiviral drug Tamiflu and the other giant corporations now producing vaccines to sell to desperate governments. Whether the products actually work is another matter and getting the trial data is nigh on impossible.

Big Pharma is effectively a secret society that owes its gigantic profits to the National Health Service in Britain and its equivalent in other countries. Take Roche and Tamiflu. Doctors say that are unable to assess how effective the anti-flu drug is because the company will not release evidence obtained from trials.

In fact, an independent review published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has found no evidence that Tamiflu can prevent healthy people with flu from suffering complications such as pneumonia. Although the drug may cut a day or so off the illness, it is impossible to say without access to Roche’s data. "Governments around the world have spent billions of pounds on a drug that the scientific community now finds itself unable to judge," said Dr Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ. Sales of Tamiflu have netted Roche sales of £1.6bn this year alone. The British government has stockpiled enough for half the population.

A second review was carried out at Birmingham University by Professor Nick Freemantle and Dr Melanie Calvert. Freemantle said he was surprised to see such a widespread use of Tamiflu and added: “But I suppose that once you've gone and bought lots of doses, then it's a bit like the situation with gun control in the US. If you have a gun in the house, it is much easier to use it. But it does not mean it's the right thing to do."

But it’s not just Roche who are cashing in. Other Big Pharma corporations are doing nicely out of producing vaccines directed at the H1N1 swine flu virus. Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis has opened a large-scale, cell-culture manufacturing plant in America – backed by $487 million in federal funding. The plant will be able to produce 50 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine and 150 million doses of pandemic vaccine.

One of the reasons that vaccines are back in fashion is that patents are running out on the industry’s core prescription drug business. Some $135 billion in prescription drug sales will lose patent protection in the next five years, and there's little in the drug companies' pipelines to replace those sales, according to health industry analysts like Alan Sheppard of consultants IMS.

Big Pharma’s claim that it is a socially responsible industry that has to make huge profits to fund research into new drugs that are then made available to the public belongs in the realm of fantasy. For example, a study by two York University researchers last year estimates the US pharmaceutical industry spends almost twice as much on promotion as it does on research and development, contrary to the industry's claim. The study found that the industry spent 24.4% of the sales dollar on promotion, versus 13.4% for research and development, as a percentage of US domestic sales.

Big Pharma is a cash rich industry – the top 20 corporations have an estimated $150 billion in resources – that is now more interested in protecting patents than developing new drugs against common diseases, or in persuading people to buy “lifestyle” drugs they don’t really need. Scientists say that little new has come out of the industry over the last decade. Meanwhile, universities are starved of resources and money devoted to research has fallen in real terms. Big Pharma has an unhealthy grip on society’s collective throats that requires a strong dose of revolutionary medicine to loosen.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
9 December 2009

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