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"Any long-term solution to the deadly Covid-19 pandemic involves the discovery and equitable distribution of an effective vaccine and treatment options. Yet, across the world, governments are handing responsibility for Covid-19 solutions over to big pharmaceutical firms, who have a long track record of prioritising corporate profit over people’s health.
The pharmaceutical industry is one of the biggest and most profitable in the world. Many of the individual corporations that constitute ‘Big Pharma’ enjoy annual revenues well in excess of the majority of countries on the planet. Judged by revenue, Johnson & Johnson is wealthier than even rich countries like New Zealand and Hungary. Pfizer’s revenues are bigger than oil-rich Kuwait or Malaysia.
Leaving Moderna aside, which currently has no products on the market, the six other giant corporations covered in this report made combined revenues of $266 billion last year, with profits of $46 billion. Consider these figures in comparison with the US’s unprecedented programme of public spending on vaccine development, which could reach $18 billion, but is currently at around £11 billion, most of which has been handed over to the same rich corporations detailed in this report.
Many commentators look at the work of some of these corporations in 2020 – developing vaccines at breakneck speed – and conclude that, whatever the problems with ‘Big Pharma’, they have nearly delivered the goods.
But this is to miss many important elements of the story which, when taken together, show that the current pharmaceutical model is actually deeply flawed, with its drive to make sky-high returns to shareholders, not a healthier population. The pursuit for very high returns incentivises the most appalling behaviour.
The cases we examine include:
GlaxoSmithKlein (GSK) which, less than ten years ago, was handed a $3 billion fine after it admitted to giving kickbacks to doctors in the US and encouraging the prescription of unsuitable antidepressants to children. Doctors and their spouses were flown to five-star resorts, given $750, and access to snorkelling, golf and deep-sea fishing. The corporation also published an article in a medical journal which misled about the safety of a drug in children, and then used the piece to try to drum up business.
GSK has also been fined in Britain for paying producers of generic drugs to delay entry of generics onto the market. And it hiked the price of an asthma inhaler by nearly 18% on the US market, raising the price to often over $300 per month, helping this blockbuster drug make the corporation over $100 billion.
Pfizer was in the top 30 most profitable corporations in the world last year, with $52 billion in revenue and a whopping $16 billion in profits. Back in 2013, a case study revealed one small example of how it reached that position. Pfizer and its UK distributor Flynn hiked the price of on anti-epilepsy drug which 48,000 UK patients relied upon. As a result, NHS expenditure on the capsules rose from about £2 million a year in 2012 to about £50 million in 2013 with the price of 100mg packs of the drug rising from £2.83 to £67.50, before reducing to £54 from May 2014. Overall, UK wholesalers and pharmacies faced price hikes of 2,300% – 2,600%.
Meanwhile, Pfizer’s testing of experimental new drugs during a meningitis outbreak in Kano, Nigeria, dogged the corporation for 20 years, and was reportedly the inspiration for John le Carré’s novel The Constant Gardener. Pfizer tested a new drug during a serious meningitis outbreak. But an employee claimed Pfizer’s trial violated ethical rules, and in the years that followed, several lawsuits were initiated, in Nigeria and the US, with claims that the parents hadn’t given meaningful consent because they hadn’t realised their children were part of an experimental trial. Ultimately, Pfizer agreed to out of court settlements of $75 million with the state of Kano as well as payments of $175,000 to four sets of affected parents and denied any wrongdoing.
In 2013, Gilead faced extensive criticism for the pricing of its new hepatitis C drug (and possible Covid-19 treatment) Sovaldi, introduced to the US market at $84,000 for a 12-week course. A US Senate committee investigation concluded: “it was always Gilead’s plan to max out revenue, and … accessibility and affordability were pretty much an afterthought.” Gilead’s next hepatitis C drug, Harvoni, was priced at $94,500. Following release of these drugs, Gilead’s corporate profits increased fivefold to $21.7 billion with Hep-C drugs generating nearly $62 billion in sales since 2013".