Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
February 25, 2001
Drug companies and the AIDS epidemic
There was a popular belief at the end of the last century that modern medicine would continue to significantly improve global health. Reports claimed that smallpox, polio and malaria had been virtually eliminated and that cures for other diseases would soon be found.
While many of the world's killer diseases are treatable, the necessary drugs are too costly, no longer produced, lacking in quality or unavailable to poor people in developing countries.
What is happening is that out of date and inappropriate medicines are dumped in the Third World in the belief that these "backward people" won't know the difference.
The Nobel Prize winning Doctors Without Borders (DWB) report that women, children and men around the world are dying of HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, sleeping sickness and other diseases for which effective drug treatments exist. The doctors charge that it is unethical that in the global trading system, drugs are treated like all other commodities.
Lifesaving treatments are not available because manufacturers have stopped production in order to make more profitable drugs for sale in wealthy countries.
Research for communicable diseases like TB and malaria have ground to a halt because such efforts do not maximize return on investment. Between 1975 and 1997 out of 1,223 new drugs developed only 13 were to treat tropical diseases and four of these were the result of research by the pharmaceutical industry.
Most alarming is the inaccessibility of AIDS drugs in developing countries. Of the 35 million AIDS victims in the world, 25 million live in Africa. While 6,000 Africans die daily from AIDS, an entire generation is disappearing.
Since the May 2000 announcement by UNAIDS and five multinational drug companies to reduce prices by as much as 60 to 80 per cent, nothing much has happened.
DWB recommends a 95 per cent reduction in price, but company officials fear cheaper drugs in developing nations could put their core drug markets in wealthy countries at risk. Human cost does not enter into the equation.
The drug industry asserts that, if they give fair prices to the poor and uninsured, here or abroad, they won't have enough money to research and develop new drugs. Yet, the pharmaceutical industry is already the most profitable industry in the world, earning profits of 18.3 per cent compared to an average profit of five per cent for other industries.
The top 10 drug corporations spent 2.5 times more on marketing, public relations and administration than they did on R and D in 1999. Last year they spent nearly $2 billion in advertising.
It should also be noted that a considerable portion of research is funded by taxpayers in the form of government grants. All new discoveries are patented and protected by intellectual property rights and a 20-year moratorium on the development of generic drugs.
The triple AIDS therapy, for instance, now costs Cdn$15,000 per year per patient. A generic manufacturer would still make a profit for producing the same treatment at $230.
John le Carre, in his latest novel, calls the pharmaceutical companies the "criminals of capitalism." During the Cold War, western governments used the idea of freedom and democracy as an excuse to exploit and plunder the Third World, rig elections, appoint tyrants and sell them our weapons.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, support for democracy has given way to the belief that the the profit-driven transnational corporations are the ultimate protectors of civilization, ethical standards and humanitarian values. I wonder if there is a pill available to combat the pandemic of grand delusion.
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