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Big Pharma more of a threat than a cure

The absurd notion that taxpayers should give money to the drugs industry as an incentive to develop a new generation of antibiotics demonstrates how a handful of corporations have their proverbial fingers round society’s throat.

Using fairly sensational language to set the alarm bells ringing, the government's chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davis says the threat posed by antibiotic resistance is on a level compared to global terrorism. Actually, the threat posed by Big Pharma is worse.

Big Pharma – the handful of corporations that control the global industry – haven’t produced a new range of antibiotics for 20 years because there’s little profit in selling this type of drug.

During that time, the over-prescription of antibiotics by health practitioners and their intensive use in livestock farming to make meat cheaper has spawned new bacterial strains that are immune to existing drugs. Others have become so difficult to treat that they kill some 25,000 Europeans yearly.
So Professor Davis is warning that without new antibiotics routine operations could become endangered by infections that cannot be treated, for example. But leaving it to Big Pharma will prove as dangerous as the new bacterial infections themselves.

In 2010, the top 10 pharmaceuticals had astronomical revenues totalling over $500 billion. Much of it comes from drugs we don’t need and from denying developing countries the right to sell generic equivalents at lower prices.

Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Pharma reveals how companies run bad trials on their own drugs, which distort and exaggerate the benefits. Data that doesn’t support the results is buried. Meanwhile, the medical profession is beholden to the same corporations and, he argues, are actually educated by the drugs industry.

As far back as 2002, an article in the British Medical Journal accused the industry of extending the boundaries of treatable disease to expand markets for new products. A decade later, the BMJ has launched a campaign entitled 'Too Much Medicine', saying: “There is growing evidence that many people are over-diagnosed and overtreated for a wide range of conditions, such as prostate and thyroid cancers, asthma, and chronic kidney disease.”

Former editor Richard Smith, who now works for a health care group, says that only 11% of 3,000 health interventions have good evidence to support them, with 80% of new drugs copies of old ones.

When it comes to holding on to patents to enforce monopolies, Big Pharma has an appalling record. Dylan Gray’s film Fire In the Blood documents how the corporations and governments blocked access to low-cost AIDS drugs – causing millions of unnecessary deaths. He says:

At the industry's behest, governments in the US and Europe use a dizzying variety of trade mechanisms, threats of sanctions and so on to curtail supplies of affordable medicine in the global south. The potential impact of these measures in human terms is nothing less than cataclysmic.

There are solutions we could pursue if the profit motive was not the main driver. First, over-prescribing has to stop. Doctors have to put patients first instead and abandon the quick-fix approach as well as misplaced loyalties to drug firms.

Secondly, we should note that  84% of worldwide funding for drug discovery research comes from government and public sources, against just 12% from pharma companies. Apparently, researchers have already discovered new antibiotics but haven’t got the funds to develop them.

So the science is there. However, the technology and capacity to turn knowledge into products is in the hands of the top 10 – Pfizer, Astra Zeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Bayer, F Hoffman-La Roche, Merck, Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline and Abbot.

That’s what has to change. Global health cannot be determined by a handful of profit-driven corporations. Giving them funds, especially at a time when austerity is cutting key services, is a shocking idea. Instead, Big Pharma has to come into common ownership and no effort spared to develop drugs that benefit the sick and not shareholders.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
15 March 2013

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