Quantcast

Millions for Viagra, Pennies for Diseases of the Poor | The Nation

  •  

Millions for Viagra, Pennies for Diseases of the Poor

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

In 1990 Marion Merrell Dow (which was bought by German giant Hoechst in 1995) announced that it would manufacture Ornidyl, the first new medicine in forty years that was effective in treating African sleeping sickness. Despite the benign sounding name, the disease leads to coma and death, and kills about 40,000 people a year. Unlike earlier remedies for sleeping sickness, Ornidyl had few side effects. In field trials, it saved the lives of more than 600 patients, most of whom were near death. Yet Ornidyl was pulled from production; apparently company bean-counters determined that saving lives offered no return.

About the Author

Ken Silverstein
Ken Silverstein is a Washington, DC–based investigative reporter.

Also by the Author

The buyers come from all over the globe, bearing cash and complicated pasts.

Here are a few recent buyers of high-end Miami properties.

Because AIDS also plagues the First World, it is the one disease ravaging Third World countries that is the object of substantial drug company research. In many African countries, AIDS has wiped out a half-century of gains in child survival rates. In Botswana--a country that is not at war and has a relatively stable society--life expectancy rates fell by twenty years over a period of just five. In South Africa, the Health Ministry recently issued a report saying that 1,500 of the country's people are infected with HIV every day and predicting that the annual deathrate will climb to 500,000 within the next decade.

Yet available treatments and research initiatives offer little hope for poor people. A year's supply of the highly recommended multidrug cocktail of three AIDS medicines costs about $15,000 a year. That's exorbitant in any part of the world, but prohibitive in countries like Uganda, where per capita income stands at $330. Moreover, different viral "families" of AIDS, with distinct immunological properties, appear in different parts of the world. About 85 percent of people with HIV live in the Third World, but industry research to develop an AIDS vaccine focuses only on the First World. "Without research dedicated to the specific viral strains that are prevalent in developing countries, vaccines for those countries will be very slow in coming," says Dr. Amir Attaran, an international expert who directs the Washington-based Malaria Project.

All the blame for the neglect of tropical diseases can't be laid at the feet of industry. Many Third World governments invest little in healthcare, and First World countries have slashed both foreign aid and domestic research programs. Meanwhile, the US government aggressively champions the interests of the drug industry abroad, a stance that often undermines healthcare needs in developing countries [see sidebar, "Blood and Gore"].

==> to Page 4

Blood and Gore

Vice President Al Gore is being beset by protesters over his attempts to strong-arm South Africa into barring the manufacture of cheap generic substitutes for drugs to treat its huge population that is HIV-positive or suffering with AIDS. Yet Gore's efforts are just a sliver of the story when it comes to US harassment of Third World nations over their drug policies.

In the past few years, the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR), which is charged with promoting American commercial interests abroad, has become a virtual appendage of the drug industry. One of its chief aims has been to discourage--by wielding the threat of trade sanctions--the use of generic drugs abroad, especially in the Third World. Such policies are especially cruel because the cost of drugs accounts for up to 60 percent of the healthcare budget in poor countries. "In the old days, the government made the world safe for Standard Oil," says Jamie Love of the Center for the Study of Responsive Law. "Now it's making the world safe for the drug companies."

The USTR, which did not return phone calls, has threatened at least seven countries with trade sanctions if they allow generic substitutes for the cancer drug Taxol onto domestic markets. Bristol-Meyers Squibb--one of the corporate world's most generous political donors, with soft-money contributions of $559,975 in the last election cycle--has also enlisted the services of Gore, who personally pressured South African officials to ban substitutes for Taxol. The South Africans have held firm.

Thailand, too, has felt the whip of the USTR, which threatened to impose sanctions if the government passed a bill requiring that generic substitutes be listed on the packaging of brand-name drugs. Argentina was punished because in international forums its drug companies opposed US positions on patent protection and the intellectual property rights of multinational drug-makers. Its firms "continue to work aggressively to frustrate our efforts," Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said in explaining a 1997 decision increasing tariffs on exports from Buenos Aires.

The United States is also trying to outlaw the practice of "parallel imports" of drugs, by which countries shop the world for the best prices instead of buying only from local distributors for US pharmaceutical companies. Parallel imports can dramatically lower a country's drug bill, because pharmaceutical firms charge different prices from nation to nation. As of 1995 an identical amount of the antibiotic Amoxil, made by SmithKline Beecham, cost $8 in Pakistan, $14 in Canada, $36 in the United States, $40 in Indonesia and $60 in Germany. The USTR has been at war with New Zealand over the issue of parallel imports for years. In 1996 the US ambassador to New Zealand, Josiah Beeman, warned of "severe consequences" after the government removed restrictions on parallel imports. That prompted Prime Minister Jenny Shipley to blast back, "We will not be told how to run our country."

In 1983 Guatemala sought to counter the aggressive marketing tactics of multinational companies with an "infant health law" that made it illegal to use pictures of babies on packaging for infant formula. Gerber, now a subsidiary of Novartis, claimed that the law constituted an unfair trade restriction and insisted that it be permitted to market its formula with a label sporting the Gerber baby. "A fat, chubby blue-eyed westernized baby is an absolutely winning marketing strategy for Gerber," UNICEF legal adviser Leah Margulies told Corporate Crime Reporter in discussing the case. "It seduces the mother into using [formula] early."

Backed by the USTR, Gerber refused to obey the law. In 1996 the Guatemalan Supreme Court ruled that the infant health law could not be applied to imported products. The Gerber baby still smiles gaily from Guatemalan supermarket shelves.

--K.S.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size