Title “Millions for Viagra, Pennies for the Poor”
Source The Nation, 7/19/99
Author Ken Silverstein
Faculty Evaluator Liz Close
Student Researcher Monte Williams
Multinational pharmaceutical companies focus their research and development on high profile, profit-making drugs like Viagra instead of developing cures for life threatening diseases in poorer countries. Viagra earned more than one billion dollars its first year, for instance.
Though representatives of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America claim that some funds are directed toward eliminating tropical diseases, neither they nor individual firms are willing to provide statistics. Research into Third World tropical diseases is not being extensively considered or produced. A recent and effective medicine for African sleeping sickness was pulled from production, while older remedies are no longer available because they are not needed in the US. AIDS continues to receive the most attention in the Third World, mainly because the disease also remains a threat to the First World. Since the release of this story, Doctors Without Borders won the Nobel Prize and announced an international campaign to increase access to key drugs.
It took the combined efforts of Doctors Without Borders (DWB), Bill Gates, the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests, and President Clinton to bring media attention to the plight of the world’s ailing millions. Slowly, hope is in the offing for these Third World sufferers, but not quickly enough; the global distribution of much-needed drugs continues to be blocked by the pharmaceutical industry’s quest for profits.
DWB had already begun to campaign for international access to critical drugs in 1999. Shortly thereafter, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $750 million to a global fund for children’s vaccines, a fund estimated to eventually reach more than $4 billion. Not to be outdone, in his January budget proposal President Clinton outlined a $1 billion tax credit incentive for malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS vaccine research aimed at relieving suffering in the global community. It was time for the drug companies, in Donald McNeil’s words, “to turn their attention to diseases like sleeping sickness, malaria, tuberculosis, leishmaniasis and the various burrowing worms that kill or cripple millions each year in Africa, Asia, and South America.”
It isn’t always humanitarian motives that drive the research, however. As the drug supply for treating sleeping sickness, for instance, dwindled to near-zero, interest was revived when it was discovered that it might also prevent the growth of facial hair in women, promising soaring profits for pharmaceutical companies. This single example underscores the severity of the problem under-developed countries face: if there is no alternative profit promised from the development of a drug, then First World countries, world public health groups, or governments must underwrite the costs. The bottom line remains just that-no profit, no motive.
Pharmaceutical companies are beginning to respond to public pressure. Pfizer announced it would begin donating fluconazole, which cures AIDS-induced cryptococcal meningitis as well as yeast infections in women, to South Africans unable to afford it. But not all such gestures are without critique. One of the most abhorrent responses by the pharmaceutical industry to this international crisis is what DWB calls “drug dumping,” donating expired or obsolete drugs in hopes of avoiding the costs of destroying or storing outdated inventory and coincidentally reaping substantial tax breaks.
Many Third World countries say they cannot wait for the charitable donations to begin. When the WTO spotlight shone on Ralph Nader’s Consumer Project on Technology, attention was brought to the idea that poor countries could receive AIDS drugs by sidestepping expensive industry patents through two little-known WTO rules that permit the manufacture of generic drugs in the event of national health emergencies. These exemptions provide a critical first-step for Third World countries. The pharmaceutical companies, however, call on the sovereignty of their drug patents to protect their profit margins, claiming that they are necessary to recoup high research costs. But some countries are contemplating declaring health emergencies in order to avoid U.S. patent restrictions and either import generic equivalents or bargain for lower prices. The cost of medicine varies widely, the same pill may cost dollars more in some countries than in others. Fluconazole, for instance, sells for between $3.60 per pill in Thailand to more than $27 each in Guatemala; the same pill by generic manufacturers sells from between 30 and 64 cents. Recently, and not too surprisingly, more U.S. research firms are beginning to look at reinvesting in malaria research as the threat of global warming raises the possibility of mosquito-borne diseases invading the North American continent.
Sources: The San Francisco Chronicle, November 24, 1999 & June 25, 2000; salon.com, December 15, 1999; Pharmaceutical Technology, March 2000, “AIDS and drug access,” by Jill Wechsler; The New York Times, May 21, June 25, & July 9, 2000, “Medicine Merchants: A special report,” by Donald McNeil, Jr., & September 21, 2000, “A big factor in prescription drug pricing: Location, location, location,” by Hal R. Varian; The Virginian Pilot, May 25, 2000; The (Baltimore) Sun, June 18, 2000; salon.com, December 15, 2000, “Warming to malaria,” by Arthur Allen.