Big Pharma should be given a financial incentive to produce the right drugs at the right priceby Philip Ball / September 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
Millions of people across the world cannot afford the drugs they need. A new business model for the pharmaceutical industry could help
No one can honestly deny the positive impact of modern medicine on our lives. Thanks to antibiotics and routine operations, childbirth and catching bacterial pneumonia are no longer life-threatening events. From bipolar disorder to hypertension and Parkinson’s, drugs ease or eliminate conditions that would be excruciating, debilitating or fatal. Yet most people in the world are still too poor to pay for such drugs. Millions die each year from diseases that we already know how to treat, and many more are left to suffer chronic illness. From their point of view, there is a serious problem with the pharmaceutical industry’s business model. Now, researchers may have come up with a better one.
The problem is not just that many drugs are too expensive, but also that research is not focused on the most urgent global needs. New drugs to combat resistance in malaria or tuberculosis, say, don’t offer a sufficient profit incentive for pharmaceutical companies. This is not sheer heartlessness: developing a drug is very expensive and protracted, making altruism a sure path to financial ruin. What’s more, the pipeline for urgently needed new drugs is drying up: fewer and fewer are being launched each year. And thanks to the emergence of new resistant strains of microbes, particularly to antibiotics, (see “Lab Report,” September 2010), old drugs are fast becoming impotent.
Some researchers feel that all these problems stem from the same cause. The business model, says microbiologist Professor Carl Nathan, of Weill Cornell Medical College, is to go for the blockbuster drug which works on everyone suffering a particular, widespread health problem. Commonly these drugs treat a condition without actually curing it: atherosclerosis, hypertension, osteoporosis, neurodegenerative diseases and so forth. That’s not to say that cures are purposely withheld, but that these diseases, which need long-term, repeated use of drugs, offer the greatest revenue. And it is precisely because antibiotics and antimalarials are generic, aimed at a broad spectrum of pathogens, that they are so widely used and thus so quickly rendered obsolete by resistance.
This is a classic market failure: chasing profits does not deliver most people the goods they need at a price they can afford, and so the market is much smaller than it could be. In short, we should not entrust the world’s…