Why we can’t trust billionaires with our health


25 October 2017

Our new campaign is taking on the corporate control of medicine, in the UK and around the world.

Donald Trump spent his first press conference as US president-elect addressing high drug prices, even accusing the pharmaceutical industry of “getting away with murder”. Skyrocketing drug prices, a problem long championed by people like Senator Bernie Sanders, have taken centre stage in American politics as more and more people struggle to afford essential medicines. 

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s policies so far are only making the problem much worse, by cutting medical insurance coverage and reducing the regulation of drug firms. But though his statement about the pharmaceutical companies might not come from a real concern for struggling  patients, it’s indicative of the scale that the problem of drug prices has reached. A third of cancer patients in the US now go into debt during their treatment. 

The world's most profitable industry

As with food, energy and other resources, the problem is not availability, but distribution and control. The pharmaceutical industry has transformed into the world’s most profitable industry, leeching off £750 billion from the global health budget and using international intellectual property agreements to obtain 20 year patent monopolies on new drugs (usually translating into between 7-15 years of monopoly by the time the new drug makes it to market). 

We have to trace the lines of nationality, class, gender, sexuality and race to understand how the corporate control of health technology is affecting people in a way that particularly disadvantages those who already face discrimination. The fight to take back public control of medicines can be traced back to, for instance, the LGBT+ led ACT UP movement in the US and to HIV positive activists in South Africa. 

In the late 1990s, as the first effective HIV treatments hit the market, millions of people were dying of Aids in the global south as the new medicines were priced far out of people’s reach. But led by South African activists, a global movement tackled big pharmaceutical companies head on and secured better access to cheap generic medicines. 

Despite such historical victories, the problem of access to medicines is only getting worse as more than 10 million people die every year because they cannot afford the drugs they need, most of them in poor and middle income countries. Even rich countries are increasingly struggling – as exemplified by the US. 

Here in the UK, the NHS has had to reject or ration important medicines because they’re too expensive. The increase in what the NHS pays for drugs over the last five years would be enough to cover the entire NHS deficit twice over. Increasingly, drug companies now make secret deals with health services so we can’t find out how much they’re being paid. 

Tackling corporate control

To tackle the issue of expensive medicines, we have to go right to the root of the problem. Corporate control of health technology puts profits before global health concerns. 

The common counter-argument to this is that the pharmaceutical firms fund drug research. In fact, however, most early stage research is paid for by taxpayers. The UK government is the third largest funder of medical research in the world (after the US and EU). Corporations then take over successful research and develop it. Most drug firms spend far more on marketing than they do on research. 

That means that we’re paying twice for our medicines – first in tax for research and then again when we buy the finished product – and that people both here and worldwide are struggling to afford the medicines they need. 

We can change this. By attaching conditions to research we’re funding with our tax money, we can make sure it will be affordable to people across the globe. Or, even better, we can change the way we fund research to make sure it remains public. This can be done by paying grants or prizes for the development of new medicines so they remain under public control, by carrying out more public research directly and by unwinding, rather than reinforcing, intellectual property rules in medicine. 

Our health is too important to leave in the hands of greedy billionaires and profiteering companies. The current system of corporate control costs too many lives and too much money, and doesn’t benefit many of the people who need medicines the most. It’s about time we follow the lead of activists and campaigners from Malaysia to Argentina who are standing up to big pharmaceutical companies and demanding medicines for the benefit of people, not corporate profits. 


 

This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Ninety-Nine, the magazine for Global Justice Now members.

Join as a member today to receive it three times a year.

 


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