Big Pharma’s Greed: The World’s Poor People Have A Right To Life-Saving Medicines

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Here is a simple moral proposition. No one in America, or anywhere in the world, should die or suffer unnecessarily because they cannot afford a prescription drug which, in many cases, costs a few cents or a few dollars to manufacture.

As Chairman of the US Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) I’m going to do everything I can to develop a new approach to the development and manufacturing of prescription drugs that responds to medical need, rather than short-term shareholder profit. Given the power and greed of the pharmaceutical industry this is not an easy task, but it’s one that must be pursued.

The tragic reality is that, today, millions of people around the world are suffering, and dying, from preventable diseases because they can’t afford the outrageous prices charged by pharmaceutical companies. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one third of humanity lacks access to essential medicines. For a staggering number of people around the world, this leads to what the WHO calls “a cascade of preventable misery and suffering.”

There are a number of reasons why this tragic reality continues to happen.

First, too often drug companies abuse patent monopolies to charge outrageous prices or otherwise keep lifesaving drugs out of reach for people around the world. For example, the Boston-based drug company Vertex is neither selling a transformative new treatment for cystic fibrosis in the developing world, nor allowing other local companies to produce it. Put simply, the company is not only refusing to bring a life-raft to people drowning with cystic fibrosis in poor countries, it is also blocking others from deploying their own life-rafts to people who need them to stay alive.

Second, far too often, the medicines that are desperately needed by millions of people in poor countries are not being produced by the pharmaceutical industry because the drug companies cannot make sufficient profits by doing so. In the US and other developed countries people often pay exorbitant prices for life-saving medicines. Poor people in developing countries can’t. They don’t have the money. The result: they die. Because the business model of the pharmaceutical industry values dollars gained over lives saved, there are not enough companies looking for transformative treatments, especially for diseases that afflict poor people.

Consider the case of tuberculosis (TB) – a disease that killed more than 1.3 million people in 2022, and is on the rise as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The TB vaccine still used today is more than a hundred years old, and only protects young children, even though adolescents and adults account for the majority of TB transmission. The testing of a promising new publicly-funded TB vaccine that could potentially save millions of lives was delayed after its corporate owner, GSK, decided to focus on more profitable vaccines.

The scientist who brought GSK the idea of the TB vaccine decades ago now acknowledges that Big Pharma cannot deliver for developing countries. “You get a big company to take it forward? Bullshit,” he told ProPublica. “That model is gone. It’s failed. It’s dead. We have to create a new one.”

Clearly, we must do better. The life of a millionaire in New York City is not worth more than the life of a person living in extreme poverty in South Sudan.

Fundamentally, we need to transform how we pay for the development of new prescription drugs. This starts with funding open-source research, so lifesaving information is shared, and scientists around the world can work together to research and manufacture their own breakthroughs. Patents should not stand in the way of public health.

If we can provide $886bn to the Pentagon for military spending, we can provide scientists with the money they need to develop cutting-edge cures that are accessible to everyone.

People should not die because of their income or where they were born. We know what it will take to save lives. Now we must have the courage to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry.

Let’s do it.

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders represents the state of Vermont.

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