Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/807/18478
Tamiflu scandal exposes bloodsucking big pharma
Nineteenth century snake oil sellers travelled the USA, claiming they could cure all manner of illnesses. Sharp sales methods earned them a few dollars from ordinary people. By the time their medicine's useless properties were discovered, the conmen had moved on.
Today, pharmaceutical corporations follow similar practices, while profiteering on a giant scale.
The government has paid £473 million for flu treatment Tamiflu in the past five years. A new report concludes it is no more effective than paracetamol. For years its manufacturer, Roche, deliberately hid research showing Tamiflu's limited benefits and significant side-effects.
When 'bird flu' broke out in East Asia in 2007 there were justified fears it could spread to become a worldwide killer, like 'Spanish flu' after World War One. More people died from it than soldiers killed in the trenches.
The last Labour government stockpiled enough Tamiflu and a similar drug, Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline, to treat 25% of the population. The US government spent $1.3 billion stockpiling these anti-viral medicines. Other governments also spent vast sums. Now it is clear this money was poured down the drain.
Independent Cochrane Collaboration academics repeatedly asked Roche between 2009 and 2013 for reports of the drug trials the company had carried out or commissioned. Roche refused to release the data, giving a variety of excuses.
First Roche offered to hand over some information, but not all of it, and it demanded a contract, with secret terms, requiring secrecy about the methods and results of trials. The researchers would not be allowed to reveal this contract even existed!
Then Roche claimed it couldn't send the information as it had given it to another group of researchers. It then sent incomplete information, before raising a new objection - 'patient confidentiality'. Finally they accused members of the Cochrane group of not being independent.
Through persistent work the Cochrane researchers discovered that only some of the evidence available to Roche had ever been published - the evidence that showed Tamiflu in the most favourable light.
Trials that had been poorly designed - or deliberately designed to give the answer company executives demanded - were published. Those that showed significant side-effects or few, if any, benefits were suppressed. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of people around the world were taking Tamiflu.
Roche has a long history of profiteering. In 1973 it was exposed as charging the NHS £370 a kilo for Librium and £922 for Valium.
The same active ingredients of these tranquillisers could be obtained from small companies in Italy (where Roche's patents were not protected) for £9 and £20 a kilo respectively. Roche argued that it was unfair to look at the profitability of individual drugs, especially such highly successful ones as Librium and Valium, since these financed the company's overall research effort.
The Tamiflu scandal shows Roche's research is deliberately biased to sustain its mega-profits.
Roche is no bad apple in an otherwise wholesome barrel. In this past week alone a French inquiry has been announced into collusion between Roche and another pharmaceutical giant, Novartis, blocking the use of a cheaper alternative to their eye treatment, Lucentis.
A US court found Takeda and Eli Lilly guilty of hiding evidence of a possible link between their Actos diabetic drug and bladder cancer. Takeda destroyed large volumes of relevant documents.
GlaxoSmithKline is the subject of a new investigation that it bribed doctors in Iraq, adding to the continuing investigation of bribery in China and, recently, of bribing doctors in Poland to use their products. Drug companies have long carried out this practice worldwide.
Research and production of medicines and vaccines is far too important to be left in the hands of these ruthless corporations. Their aim is to generate ever-increasing profits - not safe and effective treatments.
A socialist government would nationalise the pharmaceutical industry, with compensation only to small shareholders in genuine need. The industry could then be integrated with the NHS.
A major shift in research would take place into prevention, rather than copying existing drugs in profitable markets, using the skills of their scientists and resources of their laboratories.
The global nature of the industry shows the need for socialism throughout the world.
In The Socialist 16 April 2014:
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