As antibiotics fade, drug companies seek corporate welfare

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Antibiotics capsules spill from a medicine container.
Reckless abuse of antibiotics has led to a decline in their effectiveness.

In exchange for new drug research, world is asked to pay costs, absorb risks and guarantee profits

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.

Advertisement encourages medical patients to"ask your doctor" Remember: Profit is not just the motive, it is the very reason for the company’s existence.

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.

Illegal conversions in NYC are aided by an enforcement loophole

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A New York City Stop Work order is posted at the site of an illegal conversion.
A New York City Department of Buildings Stop Work order is posted on the site of an illegal conversion.

Ignore the building inspectors long enough and they will probably go away


Setting your trash can on a New York City curb a bit too early can earn you a $300 ticket. Being slow to shovel the snow off your sidewalk can draw a $350 fine. Selling individual cigarettes on a city street can get you arrested or even killed. But brush aside the rules and add an apartment to a house in ways that can threaten life and property, disrupt a neighborhood and cheat NYC out of thousands of dollars in fees and taxes and you may get away with it. If you play your cards right, the city will simply shrug at the illegal conversion and go away.

That is the message from the New York City Department of Buildings, according to a published report.

A growing unmet need

Affordable housing in all of the city’s five boroughs is a tight market. Much of it is owned or controlled by the city. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to build 40,000 new affordable-housing units and keep some 200,000 more from vanishing into the financial stratosphere.

As the city’s immigrant population soars, driving demand for affordable housing , City Hall is fighting a losing battle.

A map of New York City shows where complaints about illegal conversiions are registered.
Areas of New York City with growing immigrant populations tend to generate the most complaints about illegal conversion of dwellings. the numbers are from 2010 through 2015. (NYC OpenData)

It is difficult to responsibly provide affordable housing in a way that makes financial sense. New York City’s rent control laws are a bewildering and discouraging legislative contraption that has distorted the economics of the low-income housing market.

There are zoning laws to follow. A building permit must be obtained. Getting a permit requires approval of a plan drawn by an architect. Work must be done by a licensed contractor. If work is done outside the building, a perimeter fence, scaffolding, debris sheds and other safety precautions must be in place.

Construction must proceed in a way that allows each step to be inspected, to be sure every board and wire is installed according to the city’s Byzantine building code.

The dwelling is not considered legally habitable until all is said and done, and a formal certificate of occupancy is issued.

How much easier and cheaper it is to do an illegal conversion. Just hire a dumpster and a crew of laborers to rip out the old and nail up the new.

Incentive to skirt the law

If a city inspector shows up, he may issue an immediate “stop work” order, which will bring all of the city’s relevant regulatory powers to bear on the illegal conversion. But only the flat-footed end up in this predicament.

To avoid getting in trouble for creating an illegal conversion, all a property owner has to do is not allow the city inspector to enter the building being converted. Simply don’t answer the door and ignore any written requests the inspector leaves.

Amazingly, no matter what manner of firetrap is perhaps being created inside, after two such thwarted visits, the city will close the case, Staten Island Advance reporter Virginia Sherry learned.

That, coupled with the ability to avoid the costs and bureaucracy that come with legally renovating a building, is a powerful incentive to simply ignore the rules.

Illegal conversions outstrip enforcement

The city Department of Buildings puts a brave face on the situation, vaguely warning that further investigation may go on behind the scenes, perhaps by other city agencies, which DOB does not name. Sometimes illegal conversions are uncovered by the Fire Department after a disaster.

This NYC map compares complaints about illegal conversions to fatal fires in illegally converted dwellings.
New York City illegal conversion complaints from 2010-15 compared to the location of fatal fires in illegally converted dwellings.

DOB also has the option of building and presenting a legal case, then seeking a court order to gain access. But that is time-consuming, especially when the inability to gain entry leaves hard evidence in short supply.

Which brings up an immutable reality: DOB has only 507 inspectors to cover a city of 8.5 million people.

Complaints are welcomed

The DOB tries to leverage its resources by asking New Yorkers to phone in reports illegal conversions via the city’s 311 information system.

DOB’s website hosts an online form designed to allow people to register complaints about illegal conversion activities. But in typical city fashion, the form doesn’t work. Some of its required fields either insist on information that may not be available (contact information for the person doing the clandestine illegal conversion, for example), or won’t accept information at all. There seems to be no way for a private citizen to submit photographic evidence of an illegal conversion in progress.

To illustrate what the thin line of DOB inspectors is up against, since the start of 2010, the city’s 311 system has logged more than 100,000 illegal conversion complaints – about 23,000 a year. There are probably untold thousands of other illegal conversions, the existence of which the city has no clue.

Why illegal conversion is a problem

New York, or any city, unquestionably needs building codes and effective regulation of construction activities. But the flow of complaints – more than 63 per day – suggests the cumbersome NYC approach faces serious problems. The fact that a significant number of legitimate complaints are ending up as unresolved closed cases suggests the city is steadily losing ground to the illegal conversion builders.

Michael W. Dominowski is the editor of Not-for-Hire Media.


Moderate GOP response to State of the Union message infuriates Trump

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Donald Trump was angered by the GOP response to the State of the Union message.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was angered by the party’s response to the State of the Union message. His increasingly histrionic rhetoric channels Berlin 1932.

Called out by Republicans for his bigotry, enraged candidate fires back

Republican showman and putative presidential candidate Donald Trump says he’s “very angry” at South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley for calling him out during her remarkably moderate official GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union message January 12.

Haley called on Americans to resist “the angriest voices” in current politics – a thinly veiled reference to Trump’s bullying style. She also said no immigrant who is willing to work “should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”

Language of fear

Trump, who has made the demonization of immigrants, particularly Mexicans and Muslims, a staple of his campaign rhetoric, immediately accused the moderate Haley of being “weak on immigration.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's red hat suggests he thinks America is not a great country.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s red hat suggests he thinks America is not a great country.

Often wearing a red hat proclaiming that America is not so great, the would-be wall builder has harangued his followers with claims that Mexican immigrants are rapists, and calls for extending the immigration vetting process beyond its current two years and barring Muslims from entering the country “until the government finds out what the hell is going on.”

Gov. Haley later confirmed that it was indeed Trump she was talking about, saying “Mr. Trump has definitely contributed to what I think is just irresponsible talk.”

Bigotry as a mainstream political weapon

The Trump tactic of baiting specific ethnic and religious groups is something mainstream Republicans have gone along with because it seemed to be resonating with voters. But it also evokes dangerous echoes of some of the darkest rhetoric that has ever gripped the minds of otherwise rational people.

Abusive behavior has become a recurring ingredient of the Trump style. At each event he likes to single out someone, anyone, for vulgar derision. At one recent rally heaped public ridicule on a technician who set up a microphone Trump didn’t like.

The unprincipled billionaire candidate’s rallies have become increasingly hostile to anyone who even appears to disagree with the Trump line of attack. On several occasions, Trump brownshirts have pummeled and dragged protesters after being egged on by Trump himself.

Recently an otherwise silent Muslim woman wearing a hijab and a shirt that said “Salam … I come in peace” was ejected from a Trump rally amid jeers and abuse from the crowd.

State of the Union response senses backlash

As Campaign 2016 picks up momentum, so has the public’s distaste for Trump’s deliberately inflammatory and divisive politics.

Gov. Haley’s moderate language in her State of the Union response was an apparent acknowledgement of the growing backlash, but it was no act of personal temerity. Her carefully scripted remarks were doubtless approved – probably even written – by Republican leaders.

How else to explain how the governor of a former slave state, where Jim Crow laws persisted well past the mid 20th century, could be heard to assert that America has never had laws based on race?

That’s not to say Trump – who may not actually want the presidency – doesn’t have his defenders. One of them, the reliably venomous conservative harridan Ann Coulter, called for Gov. Haley to be deported, an apparent reference to the fact that her real name is Nimrata Randhawa. Her parents emigrated to the U.S. from India.

Michael W. Dominowski is the editor of Not For Hire Media.