In exchange for new drug research, world is asked to pay costs, absorb risks and guarantee profits
By MICHAEL W. DOMINOWSKI
In a marvelously brazen example of collusive corporate overreach, scores of pharmaceutical companies say they will look for new antibiotics – if governments around the world agree to give them $37 billion up front.
In a joint declaration delivered at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, more than 80 Big Pharma CEOs admitted that the world has been so sloppy and indiscriminate in the use of antibiotics that the once and former “miracle drugs” may soon become useless as bacteria evolve ways of resisting them.
They forgot to mention that aggressive marketing by the drug companies played a leading role in the rampant overuse of antibiotics and their subsequent loss of effectiveness.
The Davos-Klosters statement reveals the tactics the drug companies will use to press this preposterous proposition. It was laced with florid hyperbole and scary predictions of “the post-antibiotic era” – millions of people doomed to die, trillions of dollars lost to diminished economic output … and so on. “There is a Doomsday clock ticking!” cried one drug company captain.
A bid for corporate welfare
The companies not only want national treasuries to pay them to develop new antibiotics, but also to guarantee a “sustainable and predictable” market for whatever product they come up with.
No investment costs. No risk. Guaranteed profits. What industry wouldn’t want that? It’s a corporate CEO’s wildest fantasy.
The already immensely lucrative pharmaceutical industry typically won’t even consider marketing a drug unless they see a $1 billion market for it.
It has been nearly two decades since a new class of antibiotics has been brought to market.
The reason for this, the drug bigs said, is that development of new antibiotics faces formidable technical and scientific challenges – challenges, they suggest, that could be made to magically vanish if only governments threw enough cash their way.
Antibiotics test is a debacle
The last new antibiotic – one the drug industry might like to forget – was brought to market 18 years ago. Trovafloxacin, marketed as Trovan by Pfizer Corp., was tested in clinical trials, including one in Nigeria in 1996, in which 200 children who were suffering from meningitis received the drug. A number of the children who received the Trovan developed brain damage, lost their ability to hear, or became blind. At least five died after taking Trovan.
Trovan’s troubled history
Lawsuits resulted. Pfizer agreed, in 2009, to pay $75 million to the Nigerian victims of its experimentation. Along the way, Pfizer tried to blackmail the Nigerian prosecutor in an effort to get him to quit pursuing the case. Two more lawsuits remain unresolved.
Unfazed, Pfizer claimed the Nigerian trial was a success, and the FDA soon approved Trovan for a variety of illnesses.
Trovan came to market in 1998. Doctors were soon merrily prescribing it to millions of patients. Some of them were injured or got very sick. And some of them died.
It turns out, Trovan can cause liver damage – an adverse reaction the clinical trials and the FDA apparently overlooked or ignored.
Herein we find the crux of the problem.
Products ruined and a market abandoned
Drug companies develop their own products, then exhort physicians to prescribe them to anyone and everyone. They also encourage patients to pressure their physicians. “Ask your doctor…” for whatever drug they’re peddling.
Reckless use of antibiotics is what led to the bacterial mutations that now threaten the drugs’ effectiveness. The instant, if brief, runaway popularity of Trovan clearly shows that if drug companies are allowed to freely market new antibiotics, inappropriate use, overuse and abuse will surely follow.
The use of antibiotics should be tightly controlled. Drug companies should not be allowed to market them directly to the public as a way of putting pressure on physicians to prescribe them. And patients should be tested for sensitivity to them before the drugs are dispensed.
Trovan is still on the market, but it is restricted to use in medical institutions, mostly as a last resort.
After the Trovan debacle, other pharmaceutical companies, sensing potential risks outweighing potential profits, largely bailed out of antibiotics research.
Calling the drug companies’ bluff
Truth be told, antibiotics research doesn’t need to march to the Big Pharma tune. It is already conducted at universities in the U.S. and around the world, and is funded in the U.S. by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The idea that we should lavish money on the drug industry so they can pretend to develop new antibiotics is not only outrageous, it is insulting.
Perhaps we are mistaking a genuinely altruistic bit of selflessness by notoriously callous capitalists who have time and again shown that the pharmaceutical industry is about making money, not healing the sick.
Such a turnaround of corporate attitude and conduct would be surprising, remarkable, nay … astonishing. Even unbelievable.
We’ll go with the latter. From here the Big Pharma statement, with its money-up-front demand, smacks of extortion by a bunch of opportunistic corporate con artists who are in cahoots.
Michael W. Dominowski is the editor of Not For Hire Media.