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Back in August, James Surowiecki observed that the lack of an Ebola treatment was disturbing but predictable—because it’s simply not profitable for corporations in the pharmaceutical industry.
When pharmaceutical companies are deciding where to direct their R. & D. money, they naturally assess the potential market for a drug candidate. That means that they have an incentive to target diseases that affect wealthier people (above all, people in the developed world), who can afford to pay a lot. They have an incentive to make drugs that many people will take. And they have an incentive to make drugs that people will take regularly for a long time—drugs like statins.
This system does a reasonable job of getting Westerners the drugs they want (albeit often at high prices). But it also leads to enormous underinvestment in certain kinds of diseases and certain categories of drugs. Diseases that mostly affect poor people in poor countries aren’t a research priority, because it’s unlikely that those markets will ever provide a decent return. So diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, which together kill two million people a year, have received less attention from pharmaceutical companies than high cholesterol. Then, there’s what the World Health Organization calls “neglected tropical diseases,” such as Chagas disease and dengue; they affect more than a billion people and kill as many as half a million a year. One study found that of the more than fifteen hundred drugs that came to market between 1975 and 2004 just ten were targeted at these maladies. And when a disease’s victims are both poor and not very numerous that’s a double whammy.
Unfortunately, the best solution Surowiecki could offer was to reward companies for creating substantial public-health benefits by offering prizes for new drugs.
Leigh Phillips offers much the same kind of analysis of the unwillingness of the pharmaceutical industry to invest in research to produce the necessary treatments and vaccines for unprofitable diseases. In an interview with Amy Goodman [ht: dw], he adds an additional dimension:
I think we need to look at the political and economic circumstances, particularly around this particular disease both in the United States and Western countries in terms of the funding for research, where that’s coming from, and in terms of austerity in Europe, but also austerity in West Africa, as well. There’s sort of two prongs to this. The first, of course, was that, you know, over the last few months we’ve seen over and over again people from the CDC, senior figures from the WHO, even John Ashton, the head of the U.K. Faculty of Health, who have said, basically, that the knowledge is there, the know-how is there—we have five candidate vaccines, there’s a number of other different treatments that, you know, are well in hand—but there just hasn’t been any buy-in from the major pharmaceutical companies. John Ashton, as I was saying, from the U.K. Faculty of Health, you know, sort of the doctor-in-chief, if you will, in the U.K., described this as “the moral bankruptcy of capitalism.” It sounds, you know, quite vituperative there, quite explosive language, but it really expresses the anger that a lot of the researchers feel about how, look, we know what to do here, but this is just an unprofitable disease.
As a result, Phillips offers a much more comprehensive solution:
Over these past few months, the worst Ebola outbreak in history has exposed the moral bankruptcy of our pharmaceutical development model. The fight for public health care in the United States and the allied fight against healthcare privatization elsewhere in the West has only ever been half the battle. The goal of such campaigns can only truly be met when a new campaign is mounted: to rebuild the international pharmaceutical industry as a public sector service as well as address wider neoliberal policies that indirectly undermine public health.