The fact that the UK government alone wasted £473m on a drug for flu that works no better than paracetamol is an expensive example of how Big Pharma can actually harm your health at the taxpayer’s expense rather than improve it.
A lack of expertise at government level, corporate secrecy and media scaremongering combined to induce panic-buying of the drug Tamiflu by the state from 2006 onwards. At the time, some were predicting that a pandemic of bird flu could kill up to 750,000 people in Britain.
The drug was widely prescribed during the swine flu outbreak in 2009. Tamiflu was stocked by 96 countries and got on to the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines. Manufacturer Roche were laughing all the way to the bank. Last year the world’s third largest drugs company with revenues last year of over $52 billion.
At most, a dozen pharmaceutical corporations control the research, manufacture and sales of drugs. Naturally, they keep their drug trials secret and secure. Some are tested on unsuspecting, desperate people in developing countries.
Scientists at the Cochrane Collaboration had to fight long and hard to get their hands on the Roche research data. In November 2012, a researcher suggested that European governments sue Roche and that doctors and others boycott the company’s products until it published all its data on oseltamivir (Tamiflu).
Finally, have wrenched the data out of the reluctant Roche, the Cochrane Foundation scientists now say that the drug did not prevent the spread of flu or reduce dangerous complications, and only slightly helped symptoms. As to the claim that Tamiflu could slow the spread of the disease to give time for a vaccine to be developed, the report's authors said "the case for this is simply unproven" and "there is no credible way these drugs could prevent a pandemic".
Worse than that, Tamiflu could have actually made people sicker. Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford and one of the report's authors, told the BBC: "I think the whole £500m has not benefited human health in any way and we may have harmed people. The system that exists for producing evidence on drugs is so flawed and open to misuse that the public has been misled."
Oseltamivir was first produced towards the end of the last century and had little success at first. So Roche’s public relations team went to work to stoke media interest and create political pressure to buy the drug. The corporation’s PR adviser Edelman worked with the company to create “a hybrid network of twelve local public relations agencies to take advantage of flu as a breaking news story and launch Tamiflu in the top 100 local markets when flu was in the area”.
In September 2009, the BMJ reported that doctors were raising concerns about side-effects and that it was clear that Tamiflu could not contain a local outbreak within a defined area. The report added: “Yet orders continue to grow. In the UK, oseltamivir has practically become an over the counter drug, with one distinction: it is handed out free after callers provide a simple description of their flu symptoms by telephone, bypassing the need to see a doctor.”
The Tamiflu scandal is just one of many that beset the industry. For example, Big Pharma – the handful of corporations that control the global industry – haven’t produced a new range of antibiotics for 20 years because there’s little profit in selling this type of drug.
During that time, the over-prescription of antibiotics by health practitioners and their intensive use in livestock farming to make meat cheaper has spawned new bacterial strains that are immune to existing drugs. Others have become so difficult to treat that they kill some 25,000 Europeans yearly.
In 2013, the top 10 pharmaceuticals had astronomical revenues totalling over $300 billion. Much of it comes from drugs we don’t need and from denying developing countries the right to sell generic equivalents at lower prices.
When it comes to holding on to patents to enforce monopolies, Big Pharma has an appalling record. Dylan Gray’s film “Fire In the Blood” documents how the corporations and governments blocked access to low-cost AIDS drugs – causing millions of unnecessary deaths.
He says: “At the industry's behest, governments in the US and Europe use a dizzying variety of trade mechanisms, threats of sanctions and so on to curtail supplies of affordable medicine in the global south. The potential impact of these measures in human terms is nothing less than cataclysmic.”
There are solutions we could pursue if the profit motive was not the main driver. First, over-prescribing has to stop. Doctors have to put patients first instead and abandon the quick-fix approach as well as misplaced loyalties to drug firms.
Secondly, we should note that 84% of worldwide funding for drug discovery research comes from government and public sources, against just 12% from drug companies. Apparently, researchers have already discovered new antibiotics but haven’t got the funds to develop them. So the science is there. However, the technology and capacity to turn knowledge into products is in the hands of Big Pharma.
This is a cash rich industry – the top 20 corporations have an estimated $150 billion in resources – that is now more interested in protecting patents than developing new drugs against common diseases, or in persuading people to buy “lifestyle” drugs they don’t really need. Big Pharma has an unhealthy grip on society’s collective throats that requires a strong dose of revolutionary medicine to loosen.