We need a little public service from big drug companies

July 21, 1999|By Molly Ivins

AUSTIN -- A story finally getting some attention is the hideous case of the U.S. trade representative trying to force African countries not to manufacture cheap generic substitutes for the drugs used to treat AIDS.

Our government aims to protect the profits of multinational drug companies. Obviously, practically no one in Africa, where the disease is rampant, can afford the $15,000 a year that the drug companies now charge for the full AIDS "cocktail." And 85 percent of all AIDS sufferers live in third world countries.

In a sane world, we would be subsidizing the manufacture of generic substitutes for AIDS drugs. The story is getting some attention from the narrow-focus U.S. media because Vice President Al Gore personally pressured South African officials to ban substitutes for Taxol, an important cancer drug, threatening that country with trade sanctions.

Mr. Gore is getting flak for his tiny role in this revolting story so the press has found a political flap and is on it like a duck on a junebug.

In the "there oughtta be a law" category, put me down for one who would oblige the media to report the campaign contributions involved in every political story.

Filling campaign coffers

The pharmaceutical industry has the largest profits of any legal industry. The industry also spends more to lobby the federal government than any other industry, and last year gave $12 million in campaign contributions.

I know, you're about to say, "Duh." But listen to exactly how bad this is: Taxol was discovered, tested and manufactured by the National Cancer Institute (your money) and then turned over to Bristol-Meyers Squibb Co. for marketing.

According Ken Silverstein's article in the July 19 edition of Nation magazine, the company got the inside track by hiring an institute official familiar with the Taxol program to write its application.

All the government asked was that it be given enough Taxol for clinical trials. The company then purchased 400 kilograms of the drug from NCI's supplier, Hauser Chemical Co., for which it paid 25 cents per milligram.

Mr. Silverstein reports that when the Food and Drug Administration approved Taxol in 1992, the company announced a wholesale price of $4.87 per milligram and today it makes more than $1 billion annually from the drug.

The Nation article is focused on the larger topic of the gross distortions that profit makes when the pharmaceutical industry decides which ailments to research and provide drugs for.

The drug industry concentrates on impotence (Viagra), baldness (Rogaine), toenail fungus (Lamisil), wrinkles (Botox) and drugs for pets -- including one for "separation anxiety" for your dog -- while millions of people around the world are dying for lack of drugs.

Where's the pro-life lobby when we need it? The estimable group Doctors Without Borders is trying to bring attention to the need for access to drugs in third world countries, and offers some positive ideas: tax breaks for smaller firms doing research on tropical diseases, creative use of international trade agreements and increased donations of drugs from the big companies.

Heroic move

In at least one case, the drug industry was the hero rather than the villain. In the 1980s, a Pakistani researcher at Merck & Co. discovered that a drug used in veterinary medicine also protected against river blindness, which then afflicted millions in Africa.

Merck realized it couldn't make a profit marketing Ivermectin so it gave the drug to the World Health Organization.

For years, WHO couldn't get governments, including ours, to fund a program. Only lately have the World Bank and private groups given enough so that the disease will be wiped out.

The United States is the only major Western nation that does not control drug prices. Mr. Silverstein reports that prices here are about twice as high as they are in Europe.

The bulk of the cost of developing a new drug is in pre-clinical research and much of that is performed by universities or government-funded research facilities.

It is not too much to demand some public service from the industry, just as phone companies are required to subsidize service in rural areas.

At least the government should hang onto the patents of the drugs developed by its own research at public expense and use the money for more research.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth, Texas, Star-Telegram.

Pub Date: 7/21/99

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