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Debunking Pharmaceutical Propaganda

Shefali Oza

I’ve been meaning to write a column about generic drugs and epidemics for some time now, but I wasn’t feeling quite so inspired. However, reading Ken Nesmith’s column “How Not to Fight the Next Epidemic” on Friday, Sept. 12, gave me all the inspiration I needed.

While the debate about generic drugs can get quite academic, I would like to humanize it a bit. Often, in all this talk about who should be allowed to produce drugs, who can import drugs, who owns knowledge, and so on, we lose sight of the fact that this debate affects real people.

You’ve probably heard the numbers by now. Over 42 million people are currently infected with HIV/AIDS throughout the world. Three million people die of AIDS each year, two million from tuberculosis, and one million from malaria. All of these diseases, keep in mind, have available treatments.

Overall, eight million people die each year from diseases that can be easily prevented. These numbers are startling by themselves. But what if we looked past the statistics for a moment and remembered what these numbers really mean. They are the unnecessary deaths of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. I say “unnecessary” because many of these deaths could be prevented if we weren’t so hung up on intellectual property rights.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against patents. But I am against the strict enforcement of patents when diseases like AIDS are ravaging entire countries. These are examples of situations in which we should put the value of human lives over that of man-made patents.

Pharmaceutical companies dramatically overprice life-saving drugs and justify doing so by citing research and development costs. This argument, constantly used by these companies and also by Mr. Nesmith in his column, has been repeatedly debunked. And yet, it is made over and over again.

Drugs are expensive, say the pharmaceutical companies, because of the years of research and failed trials that go into making a successful drug. However, they neglect to mention that up to 50% of the research and development cost in the world is incurred by the public sector. Tremendous amounts of drug research is funded by university funding and government grants.

But when putting a figure to the R&D costs, pharmaceutical companies include these public sector costs as if they were their own. This inflates the stated expenditure associated with R&D per drug for a company and provides an artificial justification for extremely high prices. To burst another drug company bubble, I should include that these companies spend more on marketing and administration than on R&D. It basically goes without saying that the pharmaceutical industry has been one of the most profitable industries in the nation for several years straight.

Perhaps I should get back to the human side of this debate by giving an example of the ridiculous costs the pharmaceutical company placed upon AIDS drugs only a few years earlier. A triple cocktail (antiretrovirals to fight AIDS) costs, at minimum, $10,000 per year for each patient. Since these drugs serve as a treatment but not a cure, they are a lifelong necessity for an AIDS patient. However they are affordable for very few people. Now consider that in some African nations, the average income per year is a few hundred dollars. It becomes immediately clear why people have no access to medicine in many areas of the world, even if proper infrastructure to deliver the medicines exist.

Generic drugs have proven to be an effective solution to this problem of overpriced drugs. Generic drug companies in Brazil and India have been able to reduce the prices of these drug cocktails to less than $300. That’s an astonishingly low price compared to the previous $10,000 for branded drugs. Generic drug companies can provide services to the poor that many brand-name drug companies are unwilling or quite slow to provide.

We must also keep in mind that a tremendous international legal framework is in place to monitor and help control the dispersal of drugs. While details of this framework are being argued constantly, as well, the point is that it is not a free-for-all on the world market.

When 95% of people dying of major diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria are in the developing world, perhaps we need to reconsider our “obligations” to the world. I’ve heard many people argue that we have no moral obligations towards helping others. We have the drug companies that own the intellectual property rights -- we owe no one, they say. I disagree.

We are lucky that we live in a rich country. We have resources that allow drugs to be created and produced. Most countries in the world do not. So shall we say, “Sorry, we have rights to these medicines, you lose”? How much have we dehumanized ourselves that patents matter more than lives? I wonder if people would feel differently if this problem was closer to home; what if it was your family that did not have access to medicine because the prices were unjustly high?

Maybe this depends on your value system, but I do believe we have a moral responsibility here. Pharmaceutical companies are in the business of healthcare; they don’t sell books, tires, or ice cream. They hold the key to life-saving medicine that would save millions of lives. And these companies, as we have seen, are not exactly going bankrupt.

Should we horde these drugs and resources to ourselves? If a generic company is able and willing to sell these drugs for much less, why should we block access to these essential medicines?

Analogies relating generic drugs to photocopying books at Kinko’s and stealing cars from dealerships -- analogies Mr. Nesmith make in his column -- trivialize this issue, in my opinion. We are not talking about luxuries here, but life-saving medicines. Many economists, organizations, and even a few pharmaceutical company CEOs have stated that generics or lower priced drugs will not shatter the drug industry. Frankly, they have quite a bit of cushioning if they do lose some profits.

Mr. Nesmith is right: most of us will never have to worry about getting AIDS. But 42 million people already have HIV/AIDS and many more will in the future. Perhaps we should stop thinking in terms of national borders that separate us and instead think of everyone as just people.

I’m not asking for world peace or ending hunger, though that would be nice, too. Life-saving treatments that already exist are not being given to dying patients because of a hang up on the importance of intellectual property rights. Perhaps the world would be better off if we went and rediscovered our humanity.