The horrible history of Big Pharma

December 2020

Why we can’t leave pharmaceutical corporations in the driving seat of the Covid-19 response

Any long-term solution to the deadly Covid-19 pandemic involves the discovery and equitable distribution of an effective vaccine and treatment options. Yet, across the world, governments are handing responsibility for Covid-19 solutions over to big pharmaceutical firms, who have a long track record of prioritising corporate profit over people’s health. 

The pharmaceutical industry is one of the biggest and most profitable in the world. Many of the individual corporations that constitute ‘Big Pharma’ enjoy annual revenues well in excess of the majority of countries on the planet. Judged by revenue, Johnson & Johnson is wealthier than even rich countries like New Zealand and Hungary. Pfizer’s revenues are bigger than oil-rich Kuwait or Malaysia. 

Leaving Moderna aside, which currently has no products on the market, the six other giant corporations covered in this report made combined revenues of $266 billion last year, with profits of $46 billion. Consider these figures in comparison with the US’s unprecedented programme of public spending on vaccine development, which could reach $18 billion,1 but is currently at around £11 billion, most of which has been handed over to the same rich corporations detailed in this report.

Many commentators look at the work of some of these corporations in 2020 – developing vaccines at breakneck speed – and conclude that, whatever the problems with ‘Big Pharma’, they have nearly delivered the goods. 

But this is to miss many important elements of the story which, when taken together, show that the current pharmaceutical model is actually deeply flawed, with its drive to make sky-high returns to shareholders, not a healthier population. The pursuit for very high returns incentivises the most appalling behaviour.

Everyone wants to end this pandemic as quickly as possible. Most of us are excited by the positive vaccine trial results and amazed by the ingenuity of the scientists who have got us to this stage so quickly. And yet, we could do better and help end the pandemic in a fair and equitable way. 

Imagine if the drive of the pharmaceutical corporations for ever greater profit was removed from the equation. Imagine if we could replace cutthroat competition and secrecy with collaboration and openness. Imagine if our research was driven solely by the desire to rid the world of disease and suffering, starting with the most serious and deadly conditions. When combined with our technological knowhow, the dedication of our brilliant researchers and the trust which such a model could inspire in the population at large, imagine what we could achieve. 

Coronavirus gives us the opportunity to reset the way we produce medicines. If we seize the opportunity, the health of people across the world could look very different. If we achieve that, this awful pandemic could give way to a better, fairer world.

 

 
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