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Pharma isn’t the bad guy

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I’ve long wondered why pharmaceutical manufacturers are so often vilified for no other reason than providing a return on investment to their shareholders. For some reason, we place this kind of manufacturing on a higher moral plane then, say, shampoo manufacturers or car makers. For some reason, it’s often perceived that big pharma are inappropriately benefiting from human illness. It’s true that the cost of drugs is high, but that’s directly related to the cost of bringing a drug to market. In 2013, Forbes Magazine estimated the cost of bringing a new drug to market at $350 million and in the same sentence indicated that 95% of drugs fail in clinical study. As a result, this means that a combined total of $5 billion in R&D costs are being expended for every successful drug. This is not a business model for the faint of heart.

More rare still are any accolades for research-based drug companies who through their investment have, among other huge achievements, significantly extended survival rates in many cancers, enabled patients with previously crippling rheumatoid arthritis to live more active and vital lives, and who have been the cause of HIV no longer being considered a fatal disease, but instead a chronic condition.

There are few more heavily regulated industries than pharmaceutical manufacturing. All aspects of their business are scrutinized and often for years after a drug has lost its patent. They are compelled to and do maintain an ethical responsibility for having brought a drug to market. And they remain the target of unending litigation with huge financial penalties when it’s determined their drug ‘might’ have had some further, unexpected negative health effect. Despite the fact that the drug met all legal requirements for being made available it is the drug company, not the regulator who licensed it that are held accountable.

In case it seems my glasses are rose-coloured, I’m well aware that there are some pharma companies who engage in questionable practices like burying negative clinical data or offering financial incentives for use of their drugs. This minority of ne’er do wells is present in virtually every other industry, so a few bad apples…..

I think we need to understand that the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals is a business, and to be successful, businesses need to make money. They are major employers, they pay taxes, they support hospitals and physicians in important clinical studies, they support patient advocacy associations and they strive to help us live longer, happier lives. If they are able to do these things and generate a return for shareholders, who are we to begrudge them that?

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