Pharmaceutical Firms Latest To Learn That No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) says that he wants to become president so that he can “take on the powerful special interests,” such as “the drug industry.” Perhaps no one is more consistently demonized for doing more good today in the United States than the pharmaceutical companies.

The Food and Drug Administration recently approved the new drug Avastin, which shrinks tumors. The medicine helps patients with advanced bowel cancer.

Yet in the view of many Americans — not to mention politicians like Kerry — the pharmaceutical companies are the enemy. In 2000, Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore lumped drugmakers with environmental polluters and cigarette companies.

Even the Vatican seems to have joined in know-nothing drug industry bashing. The firms demonstrated a “lack of social conscience” by making massive profits on AIDS drugs, charged Rev. Angelo D’Agostino, a Jesuit.

At a news conference to promote Pope John II’s Lenten message, D’Agostino called the industry’s desire for a profit a result of “genocidal action of the drug cartels who refuse to make the drugs affordable.”

But AIDS medicines exist only because of profit-making companies that conduct drug research. In the early 1980s, the disease was a death sentence, taking some 28 million people to their graves. Today, AIDS patients survive and even thrive because private companies have developed scores of medicines.

Of course, the scourge is far from over: 42 million people worldwide have the disease. But there is reason for hope because 83 different medicines, including 15 vaccines, are in development to combat AIDS.

Impoverished peoples in impoverished lands still find it difficult to get such medicines. Pervasive poverty and state inefficiency, not Western drugmakers, are to blame, however.

Many AIDS drugs have never been patented in the poorest states. In fact, virtually none of the 325 medications on the World Health Organization’s Essential Drug list are under patent in Africa.

Amir Attaran of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Lee Gillespie-White of the International Intellectual Property Institute concluded that “geographic patent coverage does not appear to correlate with anti-retroviral treatment access in Africa, suggesting that patents and patent law are not a major barrier to treatment access.”

Anyway, firms make most compounds available at a steep discount, often less than charged for generic knockoffs. Companies such as Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck, and Pfizer donate AIDS medicines and run treatment programs for tens of thousands of people.

Inadequate health care systems pose a far greater barrier to AIDS care. Observes Dr. J.W. Lee, Director-General of the WHO: “Today, we have medicines to treat AIDS patients for a dollar a day or less, but these medicines are not getting to the people who need them.”

The drugmakers undertake a variety of initiatives directed at malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases, as well. U.S. firms also make free or low-cost medicine available to needy Americans. The number of people benefiting from the latter initiatives has risen from 1.5 million in 1998 to 5.5 million in 2002.

Strangely, attacks on the drug industry often come from comfortable people who otherwise don’t seem to mind paying for medical care. Hospitals consume nearly a third of health care dollars. Doctors and clinical services get a fifth.

Only 11 percent went to medicine in 2002. Yet people expect to get high-value drugs for free, or nearly so.

The message? Save my life, cure my cancer, clear my arteries, staunch my nausea, but do so for less than I spend on eating out every month. People who think drugs are expensive should consider the cost of not having drugs.

There’s no short-cut. Companies test between 5,000 and 10,000 compounds for every one that ends up approved for sale.

Among the latter, seven of 10 don’t even pay for their own costs. The other three have to pay for everything, including the many dry holes.

Is it unseemly for companies to profit from making medicine? Without a profit incentive, American firms would not have spent $33 billion last year on research and development. They would not have discovered the 86 new medicines that won the FDA’s approval last year.

As well as newly approved Avastin. This drug promotes angiogenesis, which prevents the creation of new blood vessels necessary for tumors to grow.

Another 30 drugs employing the same technique are being developed by such firms as Bayer, Novartis and Pfizer. Surely these substances are worth paying for.

Bashing pharmaceutical companies might win votes, but the price of such demagoguery will be high if fewer drugs are developed and fewer people are treated as a result. Contrary to what Kerry seems to think, we need more, not fewer, drugs like Avastin.