Big Pharma Brings Home the Bacon

April 28, 2009

Might this piggie take off?

Might this piggie take off?

Be afraid, be very afraid. Or, alternatively, sit back and think rationally about the threat of Swine Flu.

On one hand, it’s not a pretty picture. There is a possibility that this strain of H1N1 will be virulent enough to sweep the world, killing millions of people and costing economies billions of dollars.

That eventuality will be made much more likely if governments fail to take measures to assess the spread of the disease and to treat those either suffering or liable to contract it with appropriate medications.

So it’s heartening to see a cut price drug manufacturer in India offering the world’s authorities a cheap generic version of Tamiflu, the general remedy of choice. Cipla, which makes the drug, claims to have the capacity to dispatch 1.5 million dosages in 4-6 weeks.

The hold that Big Pharma exerts upon patent drugs like Tamiflu, however, ensures that the non-generic versions of vital medicines are rationed to benefit the world’s rich, and bypass the poor.

With that in mind, you might expect the World Health Organization to step in with an order for Cipla’s product, allowing public need to trump corporate privilege.

But as AFP reports, despite having “raised its flu pandemic alert level from three to four amid global concern over swine flu…No approach had yet been made by either the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the Indian government.”

The authorities are unwilling to breach the power of pharmeceutical corporations, even as such companies are making a killing from the epidemic. The Associated Press reports that shares in Gilead, which developed Tamiflu, rose 3.8 percent yesterday. Shares in Glazo, which sells Relenza, a rival treatment, rose 7.6 percent.

Investment analyst Ian Somaiya believes that these rises represent a windfall of $70 million for Gilead and $388 million for Glaxo while, “if the outbreak escalates into a pandemic we expect further upside driven by retail demand for the drug.”

Put in perspective, the World Bank has allotted only $25 million to help combat the outbreak in Mexico. Once again, Swine Flu lays bare the irrationality behind neoliberal capitalism, as vital resources flow to already wealthy investors and public health languishes.

The WHO, meanwhile, has long been hamstrung by a process of accomodation with big pharmaceutical corporations. It currently runs around 80 “collaborations” with the private sector, which constitutes an increasingly important source of funds for its operations. Wikipedia relates that “Voluntary contributions to the WHO from national and local governments, foundations and NGOs, other UN organizations, and the private sector, now exceed that of assessed contributions (dues) from the 193 member nations.”

It can’t be expected that an organization dependent upon private money will make the public good its primary motivation.

This is echoed by a recent article on Znet by sociologist Mike Davis, who has looked deeply into the way that corporate power has vastly increased the risk of pandemic disease. Intensive feedlot agriculture has, in his view, concentrated pathogens, resulting in an evolutionary spiral – a cauldron of emergent disease (among other nasties like massive fish die offs and carbon emissions).

Davis writes that “the WHO, with the support of most national health services, has promoted a strategy focused on the identification and isolation of a pandemic strain within its local radius of outbreak, followed by a thorough dousing of the population with anti-viral drugs and (if available) a vaccine.”

What he dubs a “counter-insurgency approach” has obvious limitations. But it is the appropriate response for a system based on short term goals and eschewing government intervention.

As Davis also notes, “The swine flu…may prove that the WHO/Centers for Disease Control (CDC) version of pandemic preparedness–without massive new investment in surveillance, scientific and regulatory infrastructure, basic public health and global access to lifeline drugs–belongs to the same class of Ponzified risk management as AIG derivatives and Madoff securities.”

The hollowing out of government inevitably leads to crisis when emergencies arise. Long term planning is simply essential in dealing with pandemic disease, but it has been woefully lacking.

Despite this – and Davis is I think accurate in diagnosing the roots of the outbreak – the likelihood of a global catastrophe is remote. But it’s not impossible, which means that global planning is clearly essential.

It’s just that we haven’t got as far as realizing that yet.

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