A recent article which appeared in the business pages of the New York Times about a comparatively small, US-based pharmaceutical company called Questcor is of far more interest than one might initially expect…
Questcor has just one main product, a 60 year-old drug which it sells for $28,000 a vial. The same drug (HP Acthar Gel, used in the treatment of "immune-related disorders like multiple sclerosis and nephrotic syndrome") cost a mere $40 a vial when Questcor acquired rights to it for the princely sum of $100,000 in 2001, and "just" $1650 as recently as 2007 (Questcor's R&D expenditure for the drug was negligible and they made $509 million on it last year).
When Questcor got word that a comparable drug called Synacthen (developed by the Swiss pharma conglomerate Novartis) was scheduled to come on the market and likely to be sold for "just" a few hundred dollars per vial, they quickly bought up the rights for $135 million so they could put Synacthen on the shelf and keep making insane profits at patients' and providers' expense. They likewise secured exclusive rights to Synacthen in numerous other countries, presumably so desperate patients would be less likely to be able to go buy it elsewhere and bring it back to the US, thus doing an end-run around Questcor's exorbitant and cynical price.
The company's stock price jumped 15% on the day the deal was announced.
This little story tells you pretty much all you need to know about the true face of monopolies on essential medicine.
Several months ago a producer at the BBC named Poppy Sebag-Montefiore asked me whether I would consider submitting a piece about Fire in the Blood to the web edition of one of the world's most respected academic publications, History Workshop Journal (HWJ, Oxford University Press). I leapt at the chance, both because of the obvious prestige of the platform as well as what I saw to be a brilliant opportunity to lay out the historical context and magnitude of the events depicted in the film, and to do so in greater depth than that generally afforded by the strictures of journalism.
I am deeply grateful to Poppy and the editors at History Workshop for the opportunity to contribute this essay about Fire in the Blood and why it needed to be made. Here is an excerpt, and a link to the full text appears at the bottom of the post.
"The more one explores the prevailing system of developing and commercializing medicine, the more one is struck by its essential contradictions. The system of “intellectual property” rights, which originally evolved on the principle of serving the public interest, seems in this case (as in many others) to do almost precisely the opposite. Those who claim to be “innovators” have no apparent interest in innovating outmoded business models which are disastrously flawed and utterly ill-suited to alleviating public health problems. Companies which claim they need to charge astronomical prices in order to recoup their huge expenditures on innovative research actually do precious little such research, and spend vastly more on marketing, lavish executive salaries and paying lawyers to extend their lucrative monopolies. Meanwhile, governments which actually fund the overwhelming proportion of global basic drug discovery research all but give the fruits of this research away to giant, profit-crazed corporations, which then proceed to sell the resulting products back to government and the public at wildly inflated prices, meaning that many of the luckless taxpayers whose money funded the breakthrough research in the first place will suffer and die without receiving any benefit from it (and may well go bankrupt in the process).
Regulating "Big Pharma" is the only area of politics I can think of where you find people on the right side of the political spectrum howling in favour of government-granted monopolies, while those on the left loudly bang their drums for “free market competition” and denounce patent restrictions for “distorting the marketplace” and “not allowing capitalism to function.”
Having spent so many years working on this project, consciously attempting not to take an ideological approach to the subject, I nonetheless often find myself astonished that we find ourselves where we do with medicine, given that the stakes are so incredibly high and we are clearly doing such an abysmal job at it. 84% of worldwide research for basic drug discovery comes from government and public sources (Light, BMJ, 2012), and the proportion of public money only rises where life-saving drugs are concerned. Yet the world, both rich and poor, is getting a terrible deal, despite investing tens of billions of taxpayer dollars per year on finding new and better drugs. The levels of profiteering on patented medicines are shocking, and out of all proportion to the expenditures involved. Yet of course this can only happen with the complicity of officialdom. I often say that the real villains of this story are not pharmaceutical companies or their fearsome lobby, but national governments which instead of fulfilling their mandate to protect the public interest, and in particular to safeguard the basic well-being of the most vulnerable in society, invariably do the exact opposite when it comes to pharmaceuticals. One can speculate as to precisely why this is, but where such vast sums of money are concerned, the conclusions are unlikely to be surprising. The companies, meanwhile, behave more or less as any capitalist entity might be expected to under the existing framework, using their “fiduciary duty” to maximize profits for shareholders as a fig leaf whenever anyone asks.
Far from improving, things are actually getting progressively worse. Using international trade mechanisms, Western governments led by the United States continue to work relentlessly to cut off supplies of affordable generic drugs to low- and middle-income countries, and if anything have only redoubled their efforts in recent years. Many of these schemes are now entering their end games, in particular the proposed EU-India “free trade” agreement and the multi-country trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), both of which contain harsh provisions intended to expand markets for Western brand-name drug producers at the expense of access to affordable medicine for huge swaths of the world’s population. Which is why it is sadly no exaggeration to say that a catastrophe like the one which occurred during the years lower-cost generic AIDS drugs were withheld from Africa may just be a taste of things yet to come. As Dr. Peter Mugyenyi, director of Africa's largest Aids research and treatment centre told me a short time ago, "We are on standby awaiting another bloodbath."
The full article is available here.
- DMG -Continue reading
Fire in the Blood won the 2013 DOXA Feature Documentary Award at DOXA in Vancouver on May 12th, in a unanimous decision by the jury.
Read the jury citation here.
Director Dylan Mohan Gray sent the following statement which was read at the awards ceremony in Vancouver:
"On behalf of everyone involved with Fire in the Blood, I would like to express our immense gratitude to the jury, the festival organizers and the audiences at DOXA for this wonderful and totally unexpected award. To win top honours at one of the world’s great showcases for nonfiction film, especially as a fledgling Indian production, is incredibly humbling, and it is hard to put into words what this recognition means to all of us. I am so sorry not to be able to be with you in person today to accept this award, but unfortunately my optimistic plans fell victim to some unavoidable scheduling conflicts. At the same time, I have been deeply moved by the messages and feedback I have received from numerous friends and strangers in Vancouver, even before winning this prize, and it is an absolutely thrill to know that our film has touched such a nerve there.
Today being Mother’s Day, my thoughts are naturally of my own mother, who passed away several years back. She was a child refugee who spent much of her life in poverty, and also worked for many years as a nurse. One of the things she loved most about Canada and Canadians was their strong, universal belief in the idea of a fundamental human right to health, a conviction that healthcare must never be viewed as a privilege, and the vital principle that the poor and middle-class should receive the very same level of care as the rich.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where healthcare is primarily viewed through a prism of economic opportunity and the promise of enrichment for a small cadre of corporate bosses, and artificial scarcity is regarded as the key to maximizing their profits. The system we detail in Fire in the Blood is one in which millions of mothers are forced to watch their children suffer and die of treatable and preventable ailments, denied access to medicine which can be easily, cheaply and safely produced in order to ensure that a handful of giant monopoly-holding corporations can maintain almost unfathomable profit margins selling drugs which were more often than not discovered through taxpayer-funded research. We believe that Fire in the Blood can start a global conversation with the potential to positively impact the lives of literally billions of our fellow human beings. To everyone at DOXA, thank you a million times over for supporting this project, for helping to get it seen by as many people as possible and, in a small but significant way, being part of ending monopolies on essential medicine. The characters of Fire in the Blood are living proof that it is possible to do the unthinkable, to take on the most powerful governments and corporations on the planet, and – if the cause is just – to change the world. Many, many thanks once again to all of you on their behalf, and on behalf of those of us who have tried to do justice to their story."Continue reading