How Big Pharma Destroys Global Health

Published by Verso

Frank Hansen on profits before health

Pharmanomics by Nick Dearden

If you think that that drug companies like Pfizer and Moderna played any progressive role in “saving the world” from COVID then think again! In a recent speech Nick Dearden concluded: “What COVID really exposed was complete market failure and that without massive state intervention we would have no vaccines … those vaccines were not created by the corporations that came to bear their name”.

His book exposes the way Big Pharma always puts profits before human health. While we can thank scientists for developing mRNA vaccines – much of their research was in fact publicly funded. This was then exploited by Big Pharma using their stranglehold over the world market, using patents and a monopoly of production/distribution networks. This enabled them to seize control of the new vaccines and charge extortionate prices, often 10 x the cost of production. The privatised vaccines were then mainly sold to the richest countries at high prices and the Global South were excluded. This behaviour by a “deeply dysfunctional industry” meant that the pandemic was prolonged and global inequality was further entrenched. This included the creation of nine new Pharma-billionaires!

Pharmanomics is essential reading for anyone concerned about global health and how it can be defended in the face of rapacious capitalism. It provides an incisive, fascinating and shocking analysis of how Big Pharma has evolved to control the world market for medicines and is able to manipulate health, research and political systems to deliver super monopoly profits. This has had a disastrous impact on human health worldwide, leaving the global south without vital medicines, restricting research to mainly profitable drugs, creating demand for dubious and unnecessary products and leaving a never-ending series of appalling scandals in its wake (think thalidomide, oxycotin/Sackler, HIV drugs in Africa, to name but a few).

Big Pharma companies have always acted like Robber Barons striving to fix drug markets to suit their own interests. However, since the advent of neo-liberalism and financialisation in the 1990s, the parasitical nature of these companies has been supercharged into what Nick Dearden characterises as “hedge funds with pharmaceutical firms attached”.

The companies defend high prices and profits as being derived from the expensive, risky and life-saving research they undertake. However, this is just fake PR, as the book points out: “Big Pharma may have profiteered, unethically pushed drugs, corrupted medical professionals…They buy the rights to produce medicines other companies have invented and take over these companies using a stash of cash and debt to do so. This pushes up the prices of medicines they own and huge profits are channelled to shareholders. Such prices are unaffordable for much of the world’s population and scientific collaboration and innovation is stifled.”

Pharmanomics provides useful ammunition in support of the many struggles across the world to take back public control over the way vital medicines are researched, developed and distributed to ensure that this is on the basis of human need. There is growing popular opposition to Big Pharma’s practices and a different way forward.

The UK has an important pharmaceutical industry, yet effective regulation lags behind the limited steps taken in the US. It is vital that a Labour Government introduces regulations in the public interest. The 2019 Manifesto pledged to reform the pharmaceutical market to force companies to produce generic versions of medicines and give the state a greater role in research and production. This explicit commitment no longer appears in Labour’s 10-year plan for health and needs to be urgently reinstated.

It is important that the left campaigns on this issue for, as Nick Dearden points out: “This isn’t just Big Pharma – it’s how our economy as a whole operates”. 

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