Opinion: The Case For Breaking Up Big Pharma

Written by Adam Rektor-Polánek

Photo via Pixabay.com.

The outbreak of Coronavirus has shined a light on many uncomfortable truths about the world we live in. For example, the ways in which popular media feed off sensationalist, spectacle-centred reporting that leads to mass panic. Or how easily this panic then transforms into racist attacks, in this case against people of East Asian descent. Or the stunning incompetence of world leaders in dealing with such a critical issue. However, there exists a key player that continues to be widely unquestioned: multinational pharmaceutical companies. The industry’s actions are ineffective and its existence is morally indefensible. Now is the time to break up Big Pharma in order to build a fairer, more compassionate world.

1) Big Pharma is killing people for profit

There is no other way of putting it. By neglecting diseases that do not generate profit and by setting drug prices too high, pharmaceutical corporations are killing people by denying them essential care. For decades, patients have been reduced to consumers and money has determined whether they live or die. This injustice burdens mainly developing countries, and though the number of people that have fallen victims to Big Pharma practices is difficult to estimate, an MSF report from as far back as 2003 concluded neglected diseases have killed millions of people. Not much has changed since.

Examples of conditions with expensive medication include diabetes –only half of the people requiring insulin have access to it- and cervical cancer, which, despite being preventable and curable, kills hundreds of thousands of women, 85% of which live in lower- and middle-income countries. The cure exists but is too expensive for many governments and NGOs to obtain at large. And while the world’s poorest continue to suffer, pharmaceutical CEOs get paid as much as $38 million/year. Big Pharma would rather see people die than lose capital.

2) Big Pharma is making the world more prone to epidemics

Rolf Hilgenfeld, a structural biologist now working on Coronavirus treatments, made an ominous statement in a recent issue of the Nature journal:

‘…the total number of people infected, if you combine SARS, MERS and this new virus, is under 12,500 people. That’s not a market. The number of cases is too small. Pharmaceutical companies are not interested.’

The cure to COVID-19 is being developed now, since the ‘market’ has since become sizable enough for Big Pharma to care. But as Hilgenfeld points out, we could have had the cure, or its close approximation, years ago. Coronavirus is from the same family as SARS and MERS, viruses that the world faced in 2003-2005 and 2013, respectively. Because the ‘market’ was not big enough then, corporate pharmaceuticals had no incentive to fund the kind of research that would arrive at a reliable treatment. Had this research happened earlier, then scientists today would have a much easier job battling COVID-19, saving both time and lives. Big Pharma operates almost exclusively in terms of short-term profits, which has made the world ever more prone to epidemics like the one we are facing now.

3) Big Pharma is hindering scientific research

One of the arguments used to defend Big Pharma is the supposed quality of research. By putting together the best scientists from all around the world and providing them with the latest equipment, pharmaceuticals could be overseeing the development of unprecedented medicinal achievements. The only problem is that they are not.

Up to two-thirds of all the drugs that arrive on the market are no better than the ones which already exist. Pursuing the prolonging of monopolies through additional patents, Big Pharma focuses on the tweaking and rebranding of existing drugs, considerably limiting possibilities for original research. In turn, scientists are very rarely encouraged to work on what excites them or what they find important, as evident from Rolf Hilgenfeld’s story. Big Pharma is not unlocking scientific potential, but obstructing it.

Above are just some of the cruel and reprehensible practices that define the multinational pharmaceutical industry. To fight against it, consider donating to causes that provide medical aid where it is needed the most, be it MSF or, specifically related to COVID-19, the official WHO Solidarity Response Fundraiser. Also, put pressure on companies to lower drug prices, for example through the #NoMoreTears campaign which targets the monopoly Johnson & Johnson has on the lifesaving drug bedaquiline. And, above all, campaign for the end of an institution which has put profit before people for way too long.

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