The Moral Dimensions of Price Protections for Drugs and Basic Necessities

drugsNew Orleans  It’s painful to read the papers about tens of thousands being denied life-saving cancer drugs solely because of costs and various trade protections that put profits ahead of people, as so many prepare to die rather than either be a burden to their families or fight for some more justice.  Reading about the USA being 35th of 148 countries around the world in internet speeds, while also being hugely more expensive for the service offered, because of monopoly protections here which in the same way are denying a basic utility to the majority of Americans and thereby diminishing their future lives and impoverishing them even further, seems just plain wrong to me in the same way.

            How is any of this moral, even within the shame of our contribution padded politics that rationalizes price protections for companies while being unwilling to impose price controls to protect people as consumers or victims of the same policies?  The horror of the drug company policies forced global reactions and drug company compromises in Africa to lower costs for AIDs drugs even though 14 million still suffer with no medication, hardly making this a success story. 

The fact that India is leading the charge to force generic cancer drugs to be licensed in that country where even with reduced prices only 1500 women of the 25000 afflicted, are still receiving the drug, says something powerful about the possibility of government action.   And, not surprisingly, when it comes to opportunity, no small reason that other countries have faster and cheaper internet is that many countries ahead of us insist on the speed and subsidize the access.  Last I knew we were still subsidizing rural telephone service in this country in order to force the companies to provide it, so why is the FCC and our government not muscling up on these same monopolies to get faster service at cheaper prices with more universal access?

Former President Bill Clinton says he regrets his bad decisions when president to defend and prop up the drug companies rather than jawboning them to drop their prices during the African AIDS crisis.  Some of the apologies seem hollow.  Death was as real for millions then as it is now.  What is the morality of asking forgiveness later when the impacts of inaction are immediate?  Will these be the issues that Obama has to apologize for five or ten or twenty years from now?

Seems to me the best alternatives would be to do the right things now when it makes the most difference to everyone, regardless of the political costs or the reduced campaign contributions.  This can’t just be about politics.  When lives and futures are at stake the morality of politics has to trump the expediency of the moment.

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India’s Supreme Court Gives Temporary Victory for Key Generic Drugs

New Orleans   Thanks to a decision by the Supreme Court in India many desperately ill leukemia patients in Africa and Asia will live, though of course many more will die.  The court ruled that that Indian pharmaceutical factories can continue making a generic version of the drug Gleevec made by Novartis.  In the developed world Novartis charges $75000 per year to patients using this highly effective regimen.  The Indian generic version costs about $2500 a year, far out of the reach of most Indians of course but affordable by many who would be die on the altar of big pharma profiteering.

Of course Novartis and other companies like it justify the prices as being necessary to pay for their research and expenses, but even to the degree some of that might be true, such an argument ignores the fundamentals of the marketplace.  Novartis can charge any price it wants as long as there is no competition for its drug and its utility, and it mostly does.  Except where the tragically ill have access to cheaper generics, 80% of which are provided by companies in India and China.  Other countries like Argentina, Brazil, and the Philippines are also challenging patents in cases worth watching.

Make no mistake though, this is a temporary victory.  Big pharma pushed India to pass a law with more patent protection in 1995.  The Indian Supreme Court ruled that Novartis had developed this drug in 1993 and though the company retooled its efforts on the drug, the patent was not fundamentally different for the adjustments made after 1995.  Other generics coming on the market since 1995 will undoubtedly have a tougher time withstanding the challenge.

These issues are not trivial.  They mean life and death to millions.  Millions, if you hear and read me clearly!

The hope is far from home unless you live in India, Argentina, or the Philippines which have passed similar restrictions on patent playing by big pharma.  Brazil and Thailand have taken the even more important step of issuing compulsory licenses for some drugs, like those effective in the AIDS epidemic, because of multilateral trade agreements that allow such actions because of overriding concerns for public health and welfare.

Public health and welfare has to trump predatory profiteering.  Such laws must expand and multiply so that companies are certainly allowed to survive, but more importantly, people are allowed to live.

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