John Le Carre describes drug industry’s ‘crimes of unbridled capitalism’ in Nation column

May 2001

The pharmaceutical industry offers “the most eloquent example” of “crimes of unbridled capitalism,” and was thus the perfect subject for a novel, John Le Carre writes in a Nation column (Le Carre, Nation, 4/9).

Le Carre’s new novel “The Constant Gardener” is about a British diplomat stationed in Africa who becomes a spy to avenge the murder of his wife, who had been investigating a drug company that used African citizens as “guinea pigs” for a new product with “fatal side effects” ( Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 3/2). Le Carre states that the drug industry, or “Big Pharma,” perfectly illustrates the interplay of commercial interests, ethics and hopes for the future.

“Big Pharma,” he writes, “offered everything: the hopes and dreams we have of it; its vast, partly realized potential for good; and its pitch-dark underside, sustained by huge wealth, pathological secrecy, corruption and greed.” Le Carre writes that while researching the book, he learned that the U.S. drug industry had “persuaded” the State Department to “threaten” poor countries’ governments with trade sanctions in order to prevent them from making their own “cheap forms” of patented AIDS drugs.

“Big Pharma likes to trash [generic drugs], insisting they are unsafe and carelessly administered. Practice shows that they are neither. They simply save the same lives that Big Pharma could save, but at a fraction of the cost,” Le Carre states. Meanwhile, he says, pharmaceutical firms have put forward the “time-worn excuse” that they need to preserve large profit margins to ensure funding for future research and development efforts, even while their expenditures on marketing are “twice as much” as those on research.

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Media Shows Promise

Pharmaceutical companies, along with other industries, have put forth the “ludicrous notion” that “whatever vast commercial corporations do in the short term, they are ultimately motivated by ethical concerns, and their influence upon the world is therefore beneficial,” Le Carre writes. Although the drug industry has set out to “seduc[e]” the medical industry by providing funding for professorships and biotech centres, the press has produced some objective investigations of drug firms’ operations, he states.

Le Carre points to a recent Washington Post series outlining the obstacles and difficulties surrounding access to AIDS drugs in Africa as one example of good reporting. The series, he writes, “should earn the writers a Pulitzer Prize, the thanks of all decent people and the naked loathing of the industry.” However, the future of patent protections remains unclear, Le Carre states, adding that President Bush “came to power on the back of a lot of very greedy people, not least Big Pharma, which poured millions into his campaign.”

To solve the problem of drug access, Le Carre concludes, governments might do well to follow the “clearheaded” idea proposed in a New York Times Magazine article, which suggests that the World Health Organization treat global HIV in the same way that UNICEF has conducted its vaccination campaign (Nation, 4/9).

Generic Production Crucial to Improving Access

An accompanying Nation editorial states that the recent decisions by Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck & Co. to lower the prices of their AIDS drugs for developing nations do not represent “a change of heart on the part of ‘Big Pharma,’” but are instead “an attempt to preserve patent rights by diffusing international pressure for generic manufacturing.”

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The companies’ true motives are revealed, the editorial states, through their refusal to withdraw from a lawsuit brought by 39 pharmaceutical firms against South Africa over a law that would allow the country to produce or import cheaper generic AIDS drugs. However, finding funding to pay the “high” prices of patented drugs “would not be the end of” developing nations’ problems, the editorial states. Instead, the editorial continues, “such a course would lock [the countries] into exclusive trade agreements with multinationals and put them at the continual mercy of Western foreign aid budgets.”

In addition, Africa would need to continually negotiate new price reductions as newer treatments are developed, the editorial notes. Generic manufacturing is one potential solution to the problem of drug access, although existing patent regulations would need to be “circumvent[ed]” to realize it, the editorial states.

Another plan, the editorial says, is to allow NIH to give patents owned by the U.S. government on “publicly funded” AIDS drugs to the WHO, which could then oversee generic manufacturing. Governments could even underwrite the entire cost of drug research, the editorial suggests, which would “do away” with patents and keep drug companies from “exploit[ing]” publicly funded studies. “[T]he solutions to Africa’s AIDS epidemic lie in sustainable competitive drug production, not momentary self-interested charity,” the editorial concludes (Nation, 4/9).

Source: Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report
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