Monday, April 28, 2003

As I sat watching “Dying for Drugs” on Channel 4 last night I watched my long held suspicions become grim reality - that so-called “big pharm” companies put profit before lives. I feel no satisfaction about being proved right, only seething anger and outrage.
Of course, these are exactly the emotions the programme wanted to promote but that doesn’t make it any less relevant. The producer actually lifted a few stones and put a harsh light on the creeps lurking in the illusory shadows of corporate generosity and compassion for all. This was media coverage at its best.
Part of the message was clear – use poor people as unpaid, uninformed guinea pigs on which to test untried drugs, lie about the legality of the tests and then, if a drug works (and sod the side effects!), make a killing by flogging it at obscenely inflated prices to desperately ill people. Ruthless, unethical behaviour made all the more frightening by the fact that mega corporations fund political parties to the tune of millions. Bleugghh has a few of these “vested interests” in his pocket. The US government is riddled with them, Rumpfelt being a prime example.
Big pharm companies love to tell us how they spend billions researching and testing new drugs. How much the testing programmes cost is anyone’s guess – not much if poverty stricken, third world people are cynically deceived into doing it for nothing in the belief that they are being helped. It was also made clear that governments provide funds for some research. A twenty year licence is given to the company holding the patent of a drug; apparently a licence to print money.
The biggest moneyspinners in recent history are drugs like Viagra. It is more important to research drugs for men with erectile dysfunction than it is to research new anti-malaria drugs to replace the no longer effective ones and save the lives of millions of poor people. Future profits are expected to be made based on imoral patents taken out on human (and other) genes. I guess the big pharm companies will find yet more uses for poor people soon enough.
Generic, equivalents exist, mostly manufactured in India for a fraction of the prices charged by patent holders - in the case of a life saving leukaemia drug, less than a twentieth of the price! These Indian companies are considered pirates and their products are banned in many countries, probably by corrupt government officials who receive handsome backhanders from “vested interests”. There is a legal way to strip a patent from a company in order for a vital drug – perhaps for aids sufferers or those dying of cancer – to be made available to those who most need it and can least afford it. How many of you watched that twelve year old boy, Jairo, die painfully of a treatable, AIDS related illness and thought only that a big pharm company has the right to charge more than twice the family’s income for vital medication costing only a fraction of the price to manufacture? It makes no sense that the poorest countries have the right to insist on a generic drug yet do not. One woman, desperate to help her HIV infected child, risked jail to smuggle a generic anti-thrush drug from a neighbouring country that allowed the distribution of cheap generic drugs. Why does she, and others like her, have to take such risks? You need to look no further than the conditions attached to foreign aid. This situation would not exist save for one country who would rather protect “property rights” over the rights of poor people to have cheap, life saving drugs. And who is this champion of shareholders dividends? Step forward the US government.
Of course, the concept of property rights only extends to US citizens, the rich ones anyway. Now the world is going to stand by idly and watch Dubya’s gangsters extort oil from Iraq to pay for the destruction wrought by Western (mostly US) military action. No one believes that the rebuilding of Iraq is going to be cheap. And what’s the betting that Iraqi hospitals won’t be stocked with generic drugs.

Deputy Editor interpolates a vaguely related item from OZ. Monday, 28 April , 2003 18:10:00

"MARK COLVIN: But first tonight, don't take your vitamins, and check your other non-prescription drugs. Australia's medicine cabinets tonight need a severe cleanout, after what appears to be the biggest product recall in Australian medical history.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration, the Federal Government's medicines watchdog, has ordered an urgent recall of 219 products made and supplied by Pan Pharmaceuticals. Pan on its website describes itself as the largest independent contract manufacturer of ethical drugs and health supplements in the world.

It also claims to comply fully with the Therapeutic Goods Administration Code of Good Manufacturing Practice for Therapeutic Products. But now the TGA says the company has been systematically and deliberately manipulating its quality control test data.

Dr John McEwen is the principal medical adviser for the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

JOHN MCEWEN: It came to light initially because of problems with a travel sickness remedy in January, and when we investigated that we found there were manufacturing problems. Within a pack, some tablets had no active ingredient, and within the same pack at least one tablet had up to seven times the amount.

And what initially misled us was that the company had manipulated some assay results. Since then we have had our auditors visit the plant on a couple of occasions, and most recently spent nearly a week there, and have come up with multiple quality control and production failures, and we’ve reached the point where – in the interest of public health – we must simply get their products out of the marketplace."