In August this year, a coalition of civil society organizations in South Africa, which includes the Health Justice Initiative (HJI) and the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM), achieved a remarkable breakthrough in the discussion surrounding COVID-19 vaccines. This milestone was reached after the Pretoria High Court issued an order instructing the Department of Health to disclose the contracts and proceedings of meetings pertaining to the procurement of COVID-19 vaccine doses from Pfizer, Janssen, the Serum Institute of India, and the public-private global health partnership Gavi.
People in the United States pay the highest prices for pharmaceuticals, and Big Pharma spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year for lobbying to keep it that way. The United States is also experiencing a growing shortage of medications from antibiotics to cancer treatments and more despite being a wealthy country. Clearing the FOG speaks with Dana Brown of the Democracy Collaborative to understand what is behind the high prices and shortages. She also describes solutions to these crises and how states across the country are taking action to directly confront the stranglehold the pharmaceutical industry has over our lives.
In response to this week’s launch of a new program letting Medicare negotiate lower prices for a handful of medicines, drugmakers are insisting the initiative will limit patients’ access to medicine and stifle the development of new cures. However, all 10 of the drugs up for negotiation are already being sold in other countries at fractions of what pharmaceutical companies are charging for them in the United States, according to a Lever review — and drugmakers are reporting huge revenues from those foreign sales. In some cases, Americans — whose tax money subsidizes the development of virtually all medicines approved for sale in the U.S. — are being charged 1,000 percent more than foreign patients for the same drugs.
The healthcare system in the U.S. shows time and time again that under capitalism, profit maximization trumps individual and societal well-being. We saw a recent example from Gilead Sciences manipulating patent laws to extend the life of one of their drugs and delay the release of another, potentially safer option. Gilead’s efforts serve as just one example of how under capitalism patent laws are used to maximize profits at the expense of public well-being. In the world of HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, many of the more recent treatments center on using a combination of different drugs that target different parts of HIV’s replication cycle.
Drug shortages in the United States are at a record high. At least 14 essential generic cancer drugs are currently in shortage, forcing patients and doctors to make difficult decisions to delay or ration first-line treatments, or accept second-best treatments. ADHD treatments, antibiotics, children’s acetaminophen, and many other critical medicines are also in short supply. But most of the solutions being discussed are just Band-Aids on a broken system. They would do nothing to transform the incentives that routinely produce shortages and other market failures. What we really need — for the health of our economy and society — is a robust public option in pharmaceuticals that produces and distributes essential medicines, such as cancer treatments.
A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report published this month reveals that approximately 9.2 million people in the US try to save money by rationing their medication. Most adults between the ages of 18 and 64 take at least one prescription medication, but 8% of them—9.2 million people—ration medicine by skipping doses, taking less than instructed, or delaying a refill. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical giants like Merck are fighting tooth and nail against President Biden’s limited checks on astronomical medication prices. Giving the government power to negotiate medicine prices with companies is “tantamount to extortion,” Merck argues in a recent lawsuit.
The Biden administration has seen firsthand in the past few weeks the benefits of using statutory power to bring down prescription drug costs. With Novo Nordisk and Sanofi following the lead of Eli Lilly and announcing their intent to slash the list price of their insulin medications by 65 percent or more, practically all diabetes patients will see relief, mostly thanks to a change in Medicaid rebates stuck into the American Rescue Plan. It upended the usual laissez-faire attitude about prescription price-gouging, and showed that the government, as a major medication buyer, can intervene to lower costs.
Imagine a disability almost disappearing if you flew out of the Global South. I have severe haemophilia, a genetic condition that interferes with the body’s ability to clot after bleeding. When left untreated, anything — even a bruise or merely sitting down — can trigger a bleed, internally or externally. Anti-clotting injections can stop this. However, outside the advanced West, these injections are sold at exorbitantly high prices. When I was a child in India, my parents couldn’t afford such treatment, so they’d bury my bleeding joints under piles of ice to freeze them. Almost all the bleeds I experienced in India were left untreated, resulting in permanent damage to my joints and internal organs. In the U.K., the NHS home-delivers me these injections twice a month. This global medical apartheid is created and perpetuated by pharmaceutical monopolies.
The barriers that certain intellectual property rules can generate – preventing the fair distribution of vaccines and medicines – are a recurring theme in debates on global health. Traumatic experiences such as the HIV/AIDS treatment access crisis in the 90s, the global rationing of hepatitis C treatment in 2014, and the unfair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines are concrete examples of the right to health being systematically violated when monopolies over medical technologies are established and exercised arbitrarily. It is urgent to recognize, expose and confront the abuses that are committed in the patent system that result in death and suffering for millions of people. In Brazil, we are currently experiencing a situation of triple abuse, which threatens the populations’ access to dozens of essential medicines.
So I know that I’m supposed to cover the Most Censored News and the fact that massive new studies show antidepressants don’t do nearly what we were told they do is on the cover of Newsweek does not exactly count as the most censored news. But I’ll get to the censored part in a minute. Newsweek reports, “In 2019, one in eight Americans—43 million in all—were taking a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), and those numbers have likely risen among a public ridden with COVID-induced anxiety.” In fact, over the past few years, so many people were demanding Zoloft that the FDA warned there would be a shortage. Think about that, one in eight Americans are on antidepressants, and assuming almost all of those people are 18 or older, 43 million is actually one in every six American adults. That is insane.
From July 19-21, activists from across the globe gathered in Istanbul for the second edition of the Global Summit on Intellectual Property and Access to Medicines (GSIPA2M). This event is a biennial gathering organized by the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC) and Make Medicines Affordable consortium to hold critical debates and discussions on ensuring that intellectual property rights don’t undermine equitable access to lifesaving medicines. At the summit, one thing became crystal clear: the challenges of the Access to Medicines (A2M) movement are diverse and enormous. They include Big Pharma’s unstoppable greed and influence over governments, multi-stakeholder initiatives usurping the role of UN institutions, and insufficiency of national-level laws and institutions.
MPLP was established in 1971 by a group of physicians who were also members of the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB/PVDA). They did this because they felt the need to translate words to action, to ensure that healthcare is accessible to the people who need it, and this included a way of providing people free health consultations. They started the first health house in Antwerp, and since then, we have managed to establish 10 more health houses, guided by the same ideals from more than 50 years ago. There are many more health workers working with MPLP now, too, and not only physicians: nurses, psychologists, they’re all part of our teams now. But of course, during this time, a lot of things changed: the impact of social determinants of health developed in one way, the pharmaceutical industry changed a lot, and so on.
As major pharmaceutical executives and investors convened virtually on Thursday for their annual shareholder meetings, campaigners took to the streets in the U.S., the U.K., India, South Africa, and elsewhere to condemn major drug companies for hoarding technology and prioritizing profits over equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines. Outside Pfizer's U.K. headquarters, activists dropped mock sacks of money and positioned wheelbarrows full of fake cash near the building's entrance to denounce the New York-based company's opposition to tech transfer initiatives and other efforts to expand coronavirus vaccine production in developing nations, where billions have been denied access to the shots. Pfizer has also faced backlash for obstructing African countries' attempts to study Paxlovid, the company's oral anti-viral treatment for Covid-19.
Under the Build Back Better Act, Congress can expand and strengthen Medicare and Medicaid, improving the lives of millions of seniors while also throwing a lifeline to folks living in states where GOP politicians are strangling public benefits. But to win these popular reforms, we have to defeat the efforts of Big Pharma, their greedy lobbyists and the politicians who take their money. It wasn’t enough for Democratic Representatives Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Scott Peters of California, Kathleen Rice of New York and Stephanie Murphy of Florida to vote against a robust bill that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, the Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R. 3).
Last Friday, three days before a crucial meeting of the World Trade Organization, progressives in the trade, faith, labor, consumer, and human rights communities sent an urgent request to the Biden administration. These nonprofits and unions are urging the administration to act quickly to assert its leadership on a pressing trade issue—whether trade rules will be allowed to hamper global efforts to combat the pandemic. In a letter and a press event, a coalition of 400 organizations asked President Joe Biden to make good on his promise to “absolutely positively” ensure access to vaccines in the developing world. They asked him to support a temporary waiver on requirements that give drug companies lengthy monopoly protections, as well as the right to decide where the vaccines will be made and who will receive them.