Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Beware of pharmaceutical companies bearing cheap drugs

Pharmaceutical companies are for-profit enterprises that make their money by selling medicinal drugs. This might seem stupefyingly obvious, but it can get (briefly) obscured when these companies distribute shiny pamphlets suggesting that the promotion of human well-being is their ultimate mission or when they act in seemingly philanthropic ways. Scratch the surface, or just wait until the smoke clears, and the profit motive comes back into view. This is partly why bioethics workers find pharmaceutical companies fascinating and appalling: sometimes they offer a glimpse of what it would be like if powerful multinationals really threw their weight behind public health goals, but only a glimpse, because they inevitably veer off to make money and please their stockholders, sometimes in ways at odds with the ethics of research and health care. They are a kind of ethical rogue element. We need them -- who can whip up their own Klonopin? -- but don't expect them to join your health and social justice parade.

The New York Times published a piece last week about two multinational drug companies, Pfizer and Cipla, who have made an agreement to charge low prices for 16 common chemotherapy drugs. In addition, specialists from American cancer hospitals are helping to set up a digital repository of clinical oncology guidelines (to be incorporated by IRB into their Watson program) to help doctors hone in on the right medical approach. This initiative is welcome news to health systems and patients in the developing world, because of the gradual epidemiological transition taking place there from infectious disease (HIV, tuberculosis ...) to non-communicable disease (especially cancer). In sub-Saharan Africa, current access to cancer drugs and adequate cancer care is, with some exceptions, flat-out terrible. Any improvement in cancer care could be lifesaving. Just as the lowering of HIV drug prices by big pharma, back in the 1990's, was lifesaving for many.

Here come the caveats. Prices for HIV drugs were lowered by the work of advocates, which the pharmaceutical industry initially opposed tooth and nail. (They have reaped profits from antiretrovirals in the meantime.) While lowering drug prices did make a significant difference for patient care, only 50% of those in sub-Saharan Africa currently in need of HIV drugs are on treatment, two decades later. Much more is needed than lowered drug prices to improve patient and population health. More too than the establishment of an oncology database, particularly if what the guidelines recommend implies human or material resources that are not locally available -- the guidelines could be a grim reminder of what you don't have. And the use of IBM's Watson for clinical care has not been a rousing success so far even in the best of circumstances.

Most likely, this initiative will help some people, but less than the early hopes and the hype might indicate. The pharmaceutical companies involved will gain from product visibility and may have a competitive advantage as the African population grows older, cancer prevalence rises and if the economies (and consumer buying power) of African countries strengthen. This may be the long game for them, and could help explain why -- long after these chemotherapy drugs were developed -- they are being offered more cheaply to African countries now.

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