TCS Daily

The Fight for the Future of Drug Research and Development

By James K. Glassman - October 28, 2004 12:00 AM

BARCELONA -- At the same time an article in the Financial Times was saying that "pharmaceutical companies could scarcely be more unpopular," a conference of global drug-company leaders opened here yesterday.

The industry is under ferocious assault. Radical antagonists are plotting to take drug research out of the hands of pharmaceutical companies, tax them, and give the money and the responsibility to a new international organization.

Meanwhile, Michael Moore, the skilled propagandist whose movie "Fahrenheit 911" is on the short list for an Academy Award for best picture, is making his next ideological documentary about the drug industry. It's tentatively called "Sicko" -- which should give you an idea of its point of view.

Here at the 22nd Assembly of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations, in this beautiful city on the northeast coast of Spain, participants are wrestling with two big problems at once -- the threat of radicals, supported by foundations and government funding, that want to dismantle and restructure their industry, and continuing difficulties in fighting terrible epidemics like AIDS and malaria.

The luncheon speaker today, Richard Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, urged the drug companies to "increase research and development in malaria and AIDS vaccines... Bring them on!"

But bringing new vaccines and other drugs to market -- even with the possibility that the Global Fund will purchase them in bulk -- is by no means assured. And the obstacles are not merely scientific. They involve a vigorous movement to transform the process of inventing and distributing pharmaceuticals from a largely free-market model to a largely collectivist one.

At the heart of the new model is a disdain for rights to intellectual property, which, in the old model, provides the main incentive for spending the vast amounts -- an average of $800 million -- to develop a single drug and bring it to market.

The current climate of animosity toward drug companies, many analysts believe, can only discourage research and development.

For example, a study by Roger Bate of the American Enterprise Institute found that the number of companies working on anti-retroviral research to stop HIV from developing into AIDS dropped by 27 percent between 1997 and 2003, "with fewer compounds in the development phase."

It is not hard to understand why. Firms that develop such drugs are vilified by radicals and run the risk that their products will simply be ripped off by copycats in India, Thailand and other developing countries -- with the encouragement of groups like the Clinton Foundation, Oxfam and even the World Health Organization.

At the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok in 2004, I watched crowds of radicals boo and ridicule Hank McKinnell of Pfizer, whose company has developed life-saving AIDS drugs and donates them to Africans, and Randall Tobias, who heads the President's Emergency Plan for HIV/AIDS, a U.S. program that will spend 15 billion dollars over the next five years.

Pfizer has funded construction of an AIDS clinic and training institute in Uganda. Merck is spending $50 million (with a matching amount from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) to fight the disease in Botswana. Other companies are involved in similar charitable projects, but the attack on their property rights continues.

It is remarkable, in fact, that as many HIV/AIDS drugs are in the works at a time when the industry's opponents want to get governments to enact a treaty to take drug research out of the hands of the companies.

Such a project would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, but drug companies today are broadly unpopular -- thanks in large measure to campaigns by anti-globalists and others to discredit them.

The Financial Times reported Wednesday, "For an industry whose raison d'etre is supposedly to improve people's health, U.S. pharmaceutical companies could scarcely be more unpopular. Public opinion has come to view 'Big Pharma' with almost as much hostility as it does perennial villains such as the tobacco industry."

One focus of this conference is developing new partnerships -- like the one among Merck, the Gates Foundation and Botswana -- to fight AIDS and other diseases. These partnerships are impressive and effective and deserve to be extended. But the work is not widely appreciated by a public that doesn't know about them, or by international agencies, which, in some cases, are simply envious.

The big question here is how seriously the companies take the threat posed by their enemies in non-governmental organizations, global health agencies, government bureaucracies and the press.


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