The pharmaceutical industry can feel a bit overwhelming. “Big Pharma” literally makes billions of dollars a year supplying Americans with medications. It’s also quite disturbing to think about the idea that the pharmaceutical industry is more focused on money-making than the well-being of human beings– just a thought.
But seriously, if that thought doesn’t scare you, then maybe this article will. A recent article for the opinion section of Bloomberg goes into excruciating detail about how pharmaceutical corporations aren’t necessarily concerned with curing diseases. With cartoon-like dollar signs in their eyes, the primary focus is instead “the best patents, not the best drugs.”
The piece focuses on Hepatitis C and how curing a disease isn’t lucrative for pharmaceutical companies. Disheartening? Yes.
The article begins with comparing what the world looks like now versus what it did when the polio vaccine was discovered.
We’re scared of getting sick. You cringe at the thought of walking into the office to find your coworker at the neighboring cubicle sneezing up a storm.
That’s all mild inconveniences compared to the ’40s and ’50s when parents were terrified of their children getting polio.
Polio, which was easily transmitted, caused paralysis and affected many young children.
So yeah, that seems like a parent’s absolute worst nightmare.
You’re glad to be living in 2018, right?
Luckily, a man named Jonas Salk created a vaccine to prevent polio.
Salk worked on flu vaccines during World War II and then moved on to focusing on a drug that could prevent polio specifically.
Cut to 1953, when he announced via radio that he had done it! After it was proven that it worked, America had a national inoculation program that was paid for by the federal government.
One would think that if you were the person who invented a vaccine that prevented a horrible disease, you’d be rolling in the money.
As the ever-relevant Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Rec would say, you’d be, “Flush with Cashhh.”
But that was not the case for Stalk.
When asked in an interview who exactly owns the patent for the vaccine, he replied, “The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
Can you imagine someone saying that about a patented drug today, in 2018?
Uh, no. You can’t.
Let’s get back to the Bloomberg Opinion piece– and the issue of Hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C affected over 100 million people worldwide.
A staggering amount of people for a disease that can be fatal if it’s not properly treated.
So, what is Hepatitis C?
It’s an infection that’s caused by a virus, which attacks the liver and then leads to inflammation.
The virus is spread by coming into contact with contaminated blood.
If you’re balking at the (idea like me), don’t share needles or dirty tattoo equipment.
The scary thing about Hepatitis C is that most people do not show any symptoms.
Others who do have symptoms, show fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, and yellow skin and eyes.
It’s a serious infection– so the fact that there are drugs which can cure it is incredibly important.
In 2014, a drug named Sovaldi was introduced.
It was created by Gilead Sciences, Inc., an American biotechnology company based in Foster City, California.
Sovaldi was the first drug that cured Hepatitis C, and with its creation came a ton of patents. Some patents wouldn’t expire until the year 2034.
Gilead Sciences, Inc. wasn’t the only company working on a Hep C solution.
AbbVie Inc. was less than a year away from releasing their own drug that produced the same results.
This meant that Gilead Sciences, Inc. would no longer be the only pharmaceutical company with a drug able to cure Hepatitis C, and they’d no longer have a monopoly on the issue.
So what did the company do?
They were pressured to make their drug as lucrative as possible, so they priced Sovaldi at a whopping $84,000 for a 90-day treatment period.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have 80 grand lying around.
And most people who are in need of the treatment don’t.
Less than a year after Sovaldi, another Gilead drug was approved, called Harvoni.
In some cases, Harvoni cured Hep C in just 60 days, and was priced at a staggering $94,000.
It doesn’t take a genius to guess the public’s reaction to this.
Those suffering from Hep C were furious at the extravagant price. And they weren’t the only ones.
Insures were distressed about paying a price so high for the drug.
Some insurers limited the drug to only the sickest of patients.
Unless you were extremely wealthy with an exorbitant amount of excess income, there was no way you were getting your hands on the drug.
Things seemed fishy.
An investigation into the matter was led by The Senate Finance Committee. It was determined that Gilead’s pricing tactics were a “calculated scheme” made for simply “maximizing revenue.”
It was obvious that they didn’t care about curing patients– they cared about getting paid.
The committee skewered Gilead for their methods.
“[Gilead] knew these prices would put treatment out of reach of millions and cause extraordinary problems for Medicare and Medicaid, but the company still went ahead.”
But despite that, the drugs still worked really well.
So most insurers had no choice but to grin and bear it.
AbbVie’s drugs didn’t work as well as Gilead’s, and so the latter drug remained dominant.
Gilead’s success numbers are astonishing.
From 2014 to 2017, Gilead made $50 billion from the Hep C endeavor.
They cured hundreds of thousands of patients.
So why was Gilead’s stock dropping?
You would think that Wall Street would be into a drug that cured a disease in full, and didn’t merely treat its symptoms. Right?
Wrong. When you’re cured, you don’t need medicine anymore.
You no longer pay for said medicine.
So Wall Street was much more interested in AbbVie’s drug, which merely treated the symptoms and didn’t cure the disease. You need the drug, well, forever.
Which means you’re shelling out money forever.
You’re a guaranteed paycheck.
Humira is the biggest-selling drug in the world. It has a yearly cost of $38,000 after rebates, and its patents won’t expire for years.
Gilead’s Hep C drug was working, though.
Because of this, the number of patients they treated dropped. Which makes sense, since the drug cures the disease.
But the drug is hard to get. 85% of people with Hep C don’t have access to the drug.
But there are people and companies who are working against the inaccessibility of these important and life-saving drugs.
Like the group, Initiative for Medicines, Access, and Knowledge, aka I-MAK.
The mission of the company is to go against and challenge pharma patents so that there can be generic drug competition. This way, the prices of the drugs would be much lower.
I-MAK hasn’t been so successful in the United States.
Although they’ve tried to challenge the patents around the Gilead drug, the patents have been sustained by the US patent office.
But in other countries, I-MAK has been pretty successful.
The pharmaceutical industry is a highly complicated one.
When asked for the Bloomberg piece about why pharmaceutical companies would honestly bother to find cures since the trend seems to want to treat the symptoms instead, I-MAK cofounder Tahir Amin replied, “This is certainly a question we’ve thought about. But drugs aren’t annuities.”
“The problem is that the patent system has allowed companies to keep extracting payments where they either don’t deserve a patent or where they are over-patenting well beyond the intended 20-year term. When you have a drug with a list price of $84,000, you can’t just stand back and let people die because they can’t afford it.”
The issue comes down to the patents.
“There needs to be a way to give drug companies an incentive to invest in potential cures and get a return that doesn’t depend on a 20-year patent,” Amin told Bloomberg.
So while the pharmaceutical industry is disheartening, there are people fighting to make medications more accessible for those who need it.
Which is important to remember when it feels depressing.
But the fact of the matter is that pharmaceutical industries are more and more geared toward Wall Street.
And when it comes to Wall Street, money is the name of the game.
So what’s going to happen?
It’s impossible to say, but at least there are people like Amin who are actively working to fix the issues that exist.
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