With a global pandemic crippling our entire world and its healthcare resources, it seems highly pessimistic to assume leading seemingly selfless industries are sabotaging our global pursuit for lifesaving elixirs. Unfortunately, I am not assuming anything. One can barely scratch the surface without plainly seeing the atrocious facts.
Last year, the pharmaceutical industry was worth $1.3 trillion. Yes, trillion. So, how much does it cost to develop definitive cures for cancer, ebola and HIV I hear you ask? The assumed supposition is that those responsible for the pharmaceutical industry just don’t care. Why develop cures which expel diseases which, when managed long term, yield an extremely reliable and enormous profit?
In their book ‘The Great American Healthcare Scam’, David Belk MD and Paul Belk PhD undertook investigations into thirteen major pharmaceutical companies over seven years – their discoveries are shocking. While the thirteen companies spent a total of $643 Billion on research, the total spend on marketing their products was a staggering $1.04 Trillion – 60% more than that on research! This surely connotes that the only industry with humanity’s life in its hands is more concerned with selling their overpriced and deceptively-marketed new teeth whitening toothpaste, rather than striving to end utterly abhorrent, arguably avertable, and most crucially ‘less profitable’ suffering.
Not only does the industry appear guilty of restricting our right to health, they also appear culpable forcing us to fork out ‘better’ but seemingly extortionate over the counter medications (thank goodness for the NHS when considering payment of prescribed medications – apologies non-Brits!). Surely once or twice you have wondered why Nurofen is around three times more expensive than Tesco’s own basic ibuprofen, then opted for the Nurofen anyway because…well, it must be three times more effective right? Wrong. The drugs are generic substitutions, thus bioequivalent (considered by licensing authorities to be equivalent) and have exactly the same ‘product licence’ (PL) number despite misleadingly alternative packaging and marketing. So why do giants of the pharmaceutical industry such as GSK charge over the odds for their Piriton and Panadol? Is it just an insatiable appetite for capital? Or is there a more reassuring moral explanation?
A study published earlier this year (March 2020) by Olivier J Wouters PhD, Martin McKee MD DSc, and Jeroen Luyten PhD, found that between 2009 and 2018, the cost of bringing a drug from initial stages of research and development to market was an estimated whopping $985 million average. How does this concern us? Well they have to make their money back in someway, and surplus, in order to invest in further drug research, development and production. Additionally, they ideally have to do this within twenty years, after which the precious patent for their prized drug becomes available to anyone and everyone – allowing the likes of Tesco and Walmart to swoop in and churn replicas out for pennies, without having contributed to any of the costly research and development – thus manufacturing purely for profit.
To that end, should we condone pharmaceutical companies’s profit driven facade, due to their perhaps authentically benevolent behaviour? Or what is more, do we even have an obligation to buy their more costly formulation? Yes we are fuelling capitalism, but we are also fuelling much needed innovation. We are delusively hoodwinked into believing that our ‘generous’ supermarket chains are treating us to ‘kindly priced’ medications, when it appears all they are really doing is paradoxically hindering crucial pharmaceutical research and advancements.
Perhaps pharmaceutical corporations do genuinely care more about our health than our money after all? High profile acts of apparent beneficence by leaders of the industry certainly provide evidence to support this. In 2015, two titans, AstraZeneca and Sanofi extraordinarily exchanged 210,000 compounds between their chemical libraries which are banks of millions of potential drugs waiting to be screened. This was an unprecedented deed considering each pharmaceutical company closely guards their own chemical library. It is the highly surreptitious nature of these libraries which has the potential to majorly hinder life preserving cures from ever coming to fruition. For instance, a pivotal cure for ebola may be sitting dormant in the chemical library of a company who is investigating advances in blood pressure management, while the ebola vaccine team of a competitor hopelessly rummages through their fruitless library.
Irrefutably, the most ethical and virtuous option would for the companies to share all the chemical libraries, affording entire freedom of information. Unfortunately, this is almost completely unheard of; it would be financial suicide to provide a competitor with a crucial missing piece to their drug development puzzle, deeming hundreds of millions of pounds of investment and years of painstaking research redundant. In pharmaceuticals it is a race to market, and no one can afford to give their challengers a head start. It seems that in the pharma game, keeping one’s cards close to one’s chest in a bid to outcompete rivals really is more important than developing cures for an unsuspecting human-race.
This claim may seem unfounded upon considering the aforementioned AstraZeneca and Sanofi case where they did indeed trade fractions of their libraries. At the time, reports claimed that the event was assumedly and selflessly a bid to find the next ‘blockbuster treatment’ – fantastic. However, those with a more sceptical approach decided to open the closet, consequently uncovering a fair few skeletons, or rather shareholders, who had become restless and uneasy at the factuality of their respective companies’s drying drug pipelines. Thus, with both the companies in identical parched positions, it was for themselves and themselves only, a pessimist (or realist) would argue, to trade a few compounds and appease those providing funds.
While profit and fortune are ostensively of paramount importance to the pharmaceutical industry, one must fully acknowledge all of the industry’s motives to wholly form a profound verdict. Yes pharmaceutical companies are focused on maximising profits and capital, but who is to say this isn’t to a virtuous and moral end? After all, they are able to bring new drugs to market because they are making money. Yes, one could argue that selectively it is only the profitable drugs that are brought to market, but without profits there would be no new drugs at all – a cyclical conundrum to which the main motives will remain unclear.
So, it is up to you to decide – are you an optimist or a pessimist? I always like to err on the side of optimism, but when it comes to the genuine possibility of earth shattering drugs being withheld I am not so sure.
Nonetheless, I do know that right now, in order to sustain research, we must support and invest in a seemingly selfish, yet conceivably good-willed industry. If the expense of maintaining steady funds for life-saving research is by opting to shell out an extra £2 for that branded packet of Nurofen… well, that is certainly a price I am willing to pay.
The views in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club.
“Annual revenue of top 10 big pharma companies” – The Pharma Letter
“The Great American Healthcare Scam: How Kickbacks, Collusion and Propaganda have Exploded Healthcare Costs in the United States” – Book by By David Belk MD and Paul Belk PhD
“Estimated Research and Development Investment Needed to Bring a New Medicine to Market, 2009-2018” – Jama Network
“Why drug makers share their prized compound libraries with competitors” – Stat News
“Johnson & Johnson’s 3 Most Profitable Lines of Business” – Investopedia