Bad apples and ignorant fools, part 1: the bitter pill of rogue ...

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Bad apples and ignorant fools, part 1: the bitter pill of rogue pharma

The few drug companies acting in bad faith feed the ‘big pharma conspiracy’ trolls and endanger us all

Journalist
Most science research is done in good faith. But what happens when greed lights up?
come up to the lab Most science research is done in good faith. But what happens when greed lights up?
Image: Reuters/Christinne Muschi

Science, data, facts and research. Never have these words been more important. Yet, Covid-19 has created a massive Petri dish in which conspiracy theories, fake news and downright stupidity are given the perfect conditions in which to grow.

Meanwhile, those with crucial expertise in science are caught in a bind that we have not seen in our lifetime: balancing emergency solutions for a global pandemic with a careful and ethical search for the right treatment, the right vaccine.

There are clinical trials under way, existing medications and vaccines are showing promise, and new ones are under the microscope. 

We need to trust the people behind these efforts. They know better than us. Many of them hold conversations in which the majority of words we can hardly pronounce, let alone understand, and they have our best interests at heart – for the most part.

Sadly (or even diabolically), however, a few bad apples in an otherwise ethical industry have broken the trust of the public, destroyed lives, and played right into the hands of the “big pharma conspiracy theorists” who claim that every medicine being tested has a sinister motivation underneath it and who dismiss the enormous role that medication plays in our wellbeing.

The most recent tension in the pharmaceutical world involves drugmaker Gilead Sciences. The company, which earned an untold fortune from bird flu treatments, more recently applied for “orphan status” for the drug remdesivir as a potential drug to fight Covid-19.

That status would effectively give them total monopoly over the experimental drug: exclusivity on sales and the right to set prices for seven years, plus significant tax incentives and additional benefits.

Critics cried foul over profiteering, saying the company was not acting in the public interest, and Gilead withdrew its application.

In that case, public pressure won.

In other cases, the bad apples’ focus on money has been so extreme as to create death and misery.

The Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, is accused of precipitating a deadly crisis of prescription opioids in the US that has killed more than 200 000 people.

As Beth Macy details in her gobsmacking investigative book Dopesick, Purdue Pharma radically (and knowingly) underplayed the addictive qualities of its prescription opioid painkiller Oxycontin, and then embarked on such an aggressive marketing drive that medical reps were literally wining and dining thousands of doctors, paying for their holidays, and filling up their cars with petrol as they sat and listened to the marketing spiel about the drug.

In other cases, the bad apples’ focus on money has been so extreme as to create death and misery.

There are too many stories of patients having their wisdom teeth removed one day, and then winding up addicted to Oxycontin the next, desperate and oft-times dead not long after.

The documentary series The Pharmacist on Netflix also reveals how corrupt doctors became pill mills, earning their keep by mass-producing scripts for opioids without actually doing consultations with patients. Some pharmacies, of course, were willing to accept those scripts for the exact same reason: money. It’s all part of the same system.

It is not surprising that the Sackler family, once known for funding art museums and the like, is now associated with a malicious greed that ignored the death and destruction it has sown around America.

This dealt a major blow to the pharmaceutical industry in general, and the checks and balances: why did government agencies ignore the destruction that Oxycontin was causing?

The human need to diagnose and cure our own diseases is a bottomless well, so when someone comes along with an innovation that is said to “change the face” of diagnostics, or “revolutionise” the healthcare system, money flows in, citizens line up, and “heroes” are lauded for lightening the load.

With hindsight, many have said that Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos’s blood-testing device were too good to be true: the machine was a tiny handheld device, no bigger than a credit card, which she claimed could conduct 30 medical lab tests from one tiny drop of blood drawn from a finger prick.

But what happens when the hero of such a story has sociopathic tendencies, and charms the pants off investors who pump as much as $700m into their start-up – a company that was ultimately valued at $9bn?

Armed with her charming smile, eloquence, and a draconian and much older boyfriend who helped run the start-up, she managed to build an empire. 

But it was built on the back of deceit, a cowed workforce told to keep their mouths shut, fake demonstrations of how accurate it was, and a curated public image in which she styled herself as the female Steve Jobs (even copying his black polar neck dress style, and adopting the deep voice of masculinity). That she had dropped out of Stanford at 19 only heightened the sense of mystique.

As much as it is important that drug companies act in the public good, so is it important that we do not spread fake news about ongoing trials and vaccines. 

After a deep investigation by Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou, who also wrote a spellbinding book on the topic called Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, Holmes was exposed and the chickens finally came home to roost (and her fraud trial is set down for August 2020).

The damage, however, to the medical industry and the public trust in experts behind diagnosis and treatment, was done.

Now, as we forge our way through this terrifying pandemic, as much as it is important that drug companies act in the public good, so is it important that we do not spread fake news about ongoing trials and vaccines.

This time, when we sound a collective call to “act in the public interest”, we are talking to everyone – drug companies and citizens on social media alike.

To do otherwise would be to put lives at risk.

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