Friday, December 22, 2006

Big Pharma's Big Lie About Research

One of the most frequent arguments cited by the Right and by pharmaceutical companies against universal healthcare is that it would lead, via cutting pharma profits, to less research on new drugs. The free-market capitalist system is held up as the very lifeblood of medical research.

Not so, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. The excellent New Standard's Shreema Mehta has the story, although it doesn't seem to have hit the MSM yet.
Although drug makers typically justify the high cost of medicines by citing research expenses, a new government report says their research investments are mostly funding highly profitable modifications of existing drug designs, not new treatments.

Spending on research and development has increased over the past ten years, but a combination of factors has led the pharmaceutical industry to submit fewer drugs to the FDA for review, according to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office, which handles such inquiries for Congress.

The report blames the slowdown on a shortage of research scientists, the slow adaptation of expensive new technologies, and an industry-wide focus on profit. Out of the "new" medicines that companies have submitted for review, 68 percent are so-called "me-too drugs" – modified versions of existing drugs, which generate generous profits while carrying little risk of rejection.

"This strategy has led pharmaceutical companies to pursue development of blockbuster drugs, which are usually for large patient populations and have the potential to reach $1 billion in annual sales," wrote the report’s authors.

Industry officials questioned by the GAO claimed these drugs offer wider options and safer alternatives to existing drugs for consumers.

But many health experts say the me-too drugs are essentially copycats that have no impact on the safety or efficacy of the drug.

"Newer isn’t always better, when it comes to drugs," Randall Stafford, a medical professor at Stanford University, told Stanford Medicine Magazine in an interview last year. "The FDA approves drugs on the basis of their superiority to placebo, not their superiority to existing drugs."
Indeed, medical research and development happens all over the world. In other Western nations it's funded primarily by governments. Recent advances in stem-cell research are one of the most prominent examples of this. Another is the Pasteur Institute (government-funded) in France that discovered HIV in 1983. Privatised medicine and the big companies that profit so hugely off it are the free riders, seeking profit from research funded by taxpayers.

Pursuit of pharma-dollars is not the only area where the facts are being massaged by corporatist conservative cheerleaders to suggest, wrongly, that universal healthcare would cost more for less. In fact, the opposite is true.

Update Richard A. Epstein, who is described as "a professor of law at the University of Chicago and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who has often consulted for the pharmaceutical industry", has an op-ed in the L.A. Times today in which he blames over-regulation for Big Pharma's pursuit of "me-too" drugs.
THE PHARMACEUTICAL industry is getting bad press. Recent books by Marcia Angell, the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Jerome Kassirer, another former editor of the journal, have harshly condemned the industry for recklessness, insensitivity and all-consuming greed. They gain sales by spicing up their titles with inflammatory phrases about "deception," "complicity" and how drug companies "endanger your health."

...Nonetheless, critics like Angell and Kassirer are absolutely wrong to portray the nation's big drug companies as heartless, avaricious behemoths that act in whatever manner they choose and always get their way. The truth is, the pharmaceutical industry is too heavily regulated. Its big problem today is not that it's free to run roughshod over the needs of consumers, but that it operates in a hostile and excessive regulatory environment that frustrates sound business decision-making and keeps down pharmaceutical company share prices in the stock market.

Consider the following: Ever-tougher conflict-of-interest rules in the National Institutes of Health and such academic medical centers as the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford and Yale have reduced opportunities for fruitful collaboration between industry, government and universities. More stringent requirements for clinical drug trials — including rules that demand larger test populations and more extensive documentation — have reduced the flow of new drugs to market. (Between 1996 and 2000, the FDA averaged about 153 new drug approvals. Between 2001 and 2005, the number was down to 55, with only 15 in 2005 and 29 in 2004.)
This despite the GAO's report clearly stating that "me-too" drugs are produced purely in the pursuit of big profits. That drive would be there no matter what the regulatory environment. What a shill!

(And notice the back-handed way Epstein admits what has long been a liberal claim - that Big Pharma makes obscene profits off the research investments of government and universities. His sponsors' real beef there is that current rules attempt to reclaim some of those profits for the folks doing the original hard work in the universities and for the government that by-and-large pays for that hard work. The pharma companies aren't interested in pure blue-sky research until they can smell a profit in it. Then they step in, buy the research for a comparative pittance and patent it.)

Of course, Redstate blog is right there peddling the K Street Party Line to the faithful.

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