Big Pharma, Misunderstood?

Anonymous comes to the aid of a hundred trillion dollar industry.

Anonymous comes to the aid of a hundred trillion dollar industry.

No one makes more money than big pharma. They populate the Fortune 500 like no other industry can and they are hated like no other industry is. And I think that’s unwarranted.

Pharma does collateral good. By that I mean that even though they aren’t aiming to save the world (at least not directly), they do. This is what no one outside the industry seems to understand about Pharma—they are businesses. That’s all.

They have no ultimate responsibility to help, and it’s completely absurd that this one (albeit immensely powerful) group of companies is expected to do what no other business does. When was the last time half of the other companies in that league were reprimanded for not gifting their products to the developing world? Yet Pfizer is constantly condemned because sometimes they only give their drugs to Africa at heavily subsidised rates, instead of for free (which is actually often the case).

Films like the Constant Gardener (and basically all of pop culture ever) portray pharma as manipulative, power hungry and evil, but this is a fiction.

Pharma is not blameless. The industry has had its fair share of accusations of theft, espionage and fraud, but at risk of sounding utilitarian, pharma is also virtually singlehandedly responsible for the fact that our lifespan has tripled and we can remain healthier for more of that time.

Drug production costs are prohibitive – to get a drug from bench to market costs somewhere around $2-20bn. That’s $20 000 000 000. What’s more, 99% of drugs fail to get marketing approval. Only one out of every hundred succeeds, each costing $2-20bn.

That’s where the money goes – not into jets and yachts but to offset the hundreds of billions of dollars which literally evaporate in the process of making you new medicines. Not even Pfizer can afford that kind of loss.

Pharmas are companies first. They need to make money because that is their job. Not saving people.

To its credit, the industry gives unparalleled aid to the developing world and that is only increasing, and let’s not forget the provision of life saving medicines to you and everyone you’ve ever met. The money making collaterally does good, and that’s enough.

The truth is, the golden age of drug design is over. All the low hanging fruit is gone. But we’re entering the age of pharmaceuticals: never before have we needed them more. Our species has gotten to a point where we literally cannot survive without pharmaceutical support. Antibiotics are a primary concern here. The problem with them is that from an economic perspective, they are not valuable drugs. An antibiotic might only be useful for a few years before a new one is required to battle evolving infections, and a few years of one-off treatments cannot repay $20 000 000 000.

We are running out of antibiotics. This is not a new idea, but it is one rapidly accelerating into view, as we get closer and closer to a ‘super bug’ apocalypse.

Pfizer needs to make huge profits. It needs to spend obscene amounts of money on new drugs because we in the West misuse them. The industry can’t afford to give away more drugs to developing countries, because you go to your GP for a cold (a virus) and demand unnecessary treatment.

Malaria is a leading cause of death around the world. Why is there no effective treatment? Because it only affects poor people, and thus, the industry cannot make afford to make these drugs. I went to South America recently, and I took a drug called Malarone because I could afford two months’ treatment of one $10 tablet a day. Few people there could. Why is there no cheaper option? Because the public demands new research into antidepressants or cancer drugs that let us live longer happier lives, and not antimalarials or antibiotics that would let people in developing countries live at all. The industry could not sustain the kind of losses required without instantly imploding. We have created an industry that can only survive by fulfilling rich people’s needs.