Big Pharma

This is your capitalist brain on drugs

Drug firm Pfizer has discovered that its own arthritis treatment drug Enbrel also seems to cut the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 64 percent (New Scientist, 15 June, p7). Great, you might think. Over to Pfizer to start cranking out Enbrel by the container load.

Oh but wait, says Pfizer. Actually, our patent on this is due to expire soon, so we won’t be proceeding with this.

What, you say, you mean you’re not going to make any?

Pfizer shakes its head.

But a 64 percent risk reduction – are you kidding? That blows every other Alzheimer drug out of the water!

Sorry, says Pfizer, no can do. If we don’t make the profit, we don’t make the drug.

But surely you can get your patent extended, you insist. Old drug, new use, it’s been done before.

Yeah well, says Pfizer, we don’t really believe our own data anyway.

Alright, you argue, run proper clinical trials then.

Pfizer bites its lip. Thing is, trials cost, and we’ve all lost a packet on failed clinical trials before. All previous Alzheimer’s trials have failed, which is why all the major drug firms have closed their Alzheimer’s research units. Basically it’s a huge money sink.

Well, you ask in increasing desperation, can’t you get government funding to cover this?

Pfizer smiles. Yeah, good luck with that. Voters want low taxes more than happy granddads.

Well, can’t you release the patent and let another firm make the stuff then?

Pfizer looks shocked. But that wouldn’t be fair – it’s our drug!

Alzheimer’s affects 37 million people worldwide. But capitalism says no.

Why not make a cystic fibrosis drug instead? Drug firm Vertex charges £100,000 a year for the treatment Orkambi, which the NHS won’t pay for, so kids die (New Scientist, 15 June, p9). But because Vertex doesn’t have a valid patent in Argentina, a local firm is producing the drug at the bargain rate of £23,000 pa. Vertex is furious, of course, claiming that their sale price is a fair reflection of the billions they sank into R&D. Meanwhile the parents of kids with cystic fibrosis have been forced to create a ‘buyers club’ in order to buy wholesale and get the cost down further, a move clinicians describe as ‘a desperate act’.

Patents in capitalism are intended to reward and defend intellectual effort and financial investment. But the flip side is that patents also kill people either by setting unaffordable prices or stopping production at source. In socialism you might get the kudos for an invention, but you wouldn’t get a patent.

This is your capitalist brain on dregs

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