Is There a Pharmaceutical Conspiracy?

One less publicised thing that Covid-19 may have perhaps revealed is the pharmaceutical conspiracy that exists.

In the face of the pandemic it is incredible what the pharmaceutical industry has achieved in producing a vaccine in such a short space of time. It shows what can be done when the will is there.

Unfortunately, more often than not, the pharmaceutical industry is not so productive. They may spend millions on research and development and regularly produce new drugs and treatments but their focus tends to be on finding ways to manage illnesses and diseases rather than on delivering cures.

There’s no cure for diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dementia, not even the common cold.

There is a reason for that.

Why would they want to find a cure for something? From their point of view it is far better to develop drugs that enable diseases to be controlled and managed. In so doing, patients require on-going treatments which mean that, for the pharmaceutical company, the monies keep rolling in.

Not only is there no long term incentive for the development of medical cures, there is in fact a disincentive to doing so. The fact that many pharmaceutical companies are so large and have a portfolio of drugs within their range means that if they were to launch a particular cure for an illness they would not only be producing something which does not generate repeat business and therefore would have limited sales but any curative would also take business away from their other drugs as they would no longer be needed if the patient is cured.

Given that the pharmaceutical industries have produced successful drugs that help manage or control a disease why would they want to jeopardise this cash cow by producing something that makes these managerial treatments obsolete?

Medical cures have a limited market and financial return; disease management has a much more appealing market and financial return.

In some ways, it is the same argument over the desire to produce an ever-lasting light bulb – why produce something that will eventually put yourself out of business?

An ethical concern would be that pharmaceutical companies might actually be sitting on medical cures. They have them in their research departments but there is just no long term business incentive to developing them.

Organisations will do what they need to do in order to maintain and drive the success and profitability of their business. Those actions may not necessarily be in the wider public interest. A couple of examples where this has happened are as follows:

  • In the past, supermarkets bought and held plots of land as potential sites for new stores but, more often than not, the real reason for such purchases was to prevent the competition from getting those sites.
  • Middle East countries have maintained the dominance of petrol as an energy source by limiting the development of alternative energies – buying out companies that might produce a future threat to their dominance, “encouraging” scientists and researchers to focus their attentions elsewhere. As a result, alternatives to petrol have been slow to emerge.

The pharmaceutical industry may also be acting in their best interests in order to ensure that they maintain their existing markets and only open up future markets that have an on-going demand.

That’s their conventional way of working. Covid-19 vaccinations – a preventative drug – seem to represent a different approach.

Producing an effective vaccine in record time has undoubtedly been a remarkable achievement but we should also recognise that it has mainly been achieved because it is in the interests of the pharmaceutical companies to do it. They have benefited substantially.

  • Governments have thrown money at the pharmaceutical companies to research and produce the vaccine.
  • Pharmaceutical companies will have recognised the sales opportunity – a drug that everybody in the entire world will need. They may also have realised that there may be an on-going requirement for a vaccine to deal with Covid mutations just like the need for an updated flu vaccine each year. It might not therefore be a limited, one-off product but may be a source of repeat business.
  • The desire to be first to market in order to take advantage of the massive demand drove competition between the pharmaceutical companies which enabled the vaccine to be produced so quickly.
  • Perhaps rather cynically, one might even suggest that the pharmaceutical companies were protecting their own interests. As Covid -19 was mainly killing elderly patients – patients that would have other medical conditions and would be requiring medications for those conditions – the pharmaceutical industry had to act to save lives otherwise they would be losing business for their other medications.

It seems that when the desire and incentive is there then the free market can certainly generate medical advances. The problem is that the system can also carry with it a propensity to stifle new developments and cures. If something is not in the best interests of a business then it just won’t happen.

It may be that authorities need to find some way of breaking up the stranglehold that the pharmaceutical companies have on medical developments:

  • Greater incentives to find cures.
  • The encouragement of new, smaller companies into the industry.
  • The emergence of more research only companies who have no interest in the long term production potential of their discoveries.
  • Guarantees and extensions on intellectual property rights.
  • More oversight on take-overs and buy-outs by the large pharmaceutical companies to ensure that potential drugs are not “lost in the system”.

Questions do need to be asked of the pharmaceutical companies. Pharmaceutical companies do need to be challenged. If they can produce an effective vaccine for Covid-19 why are they so slow to produce cures in other medical areas? Could they be too focused on their own best interests rather than on the public interest?