Easheta Shah: Pandemic profiteers

Friday, May 15, 2020 - 12:21am

Amid the pandemic, it’s disheartening to see our country’s poor response to this public health crisis, and daily COVID-19 updates highlight our nation’s inability to separate business and politics from basic human rights. While most of the country has focused on bills like the Affordable Care Act and Medicare for All, this problem ultimately starts with the wrath of “Big Pharma,” a pejorative alias given to the pharmaceutical industry and its heavily debated motivations. Big Pharma is known for its notorious role in pushing overpriced drugs onto desperate consumers with patent brand-name medication, just like in the case of America’s ongoing opioid crisis.

Since the early 2000s, drug companies have focused their efforts on profits, spending 19 times more money on marketing than on proper research and development. This negligence of the latter is telling of their prevailing misaligned priorities, and there seems to be no sign of change amid a global pandemic. In fact, industry lobbyists have ensured that the aid package for coronavirus funding allows them to ultimately maximize profits from the pandemic with no limitations on intellectual property rights for drug makers and limited government intervention. Take heart though, this reigning power pharmaceuticals have over drug price controls is largely exclusive to the United States. Prioritizing profits over basic human health is nothing short of outrageous, but after all, it is the American way. 

Biopharmaceutical company Gilead recently revisited the antiviral drug remdesivir which was first developed to treat Ebola. When the first known case of COVID-19 in the U.S. presented escalated symptoms at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash., they turned to Gilead’s drug. After being approved by the Food and Drug Administration under “compassionate use,” the drug was administered. Compassionate use allows “unapproved drugs to be given under select circumstances outside of clinical trials.” Note: unapproved drug. Remdesivir is still an unapproved drug that requires clinical trials to prove its efficacy, test its dosages and observe any side effects. During a public health emergency, temporarily waived standards for experimental drugs are often necessary for preliminary administration to assess potential benefits.  

Even so, the drug was used in hopes to ease the burden of the pandemic on the health system by not only reducing the intensity and duration of the virus, but also offering the tiniest sliver of hope to us all. However, if easing the burden on the health system was ever the true goal, abiding by strict public health protocols and investing in extreme preventative measures early on would have been the appropriate course of action. While the drug did reduce days for recovery in its first patient, later trials proved the effects of remdisivir to be insignificant and inconclusive. Why, then, was information based on preliminary data released to the public at all? The answer is disappointing yet unsurprising: market manipulation. Dr. Anthony Fauci’s, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spontaneous announcement of the data was possibly motivated by concerns that leaked information would cause the stock market to drop, as are most actions taken by Big Pharma. While the stock for Gilead temporarily rose, the minimally researched remdesivir dangerously raised hopes for patients in critical condition. The drug escalated in demand so much so that Gilead stopped accepting requests altogether because they simply could not keep up. While the company’s released statement alluded to efforts focused on an alternative, the lack of transparency from both the company and the federal government has yet to offer satisfactory information as to how the administration of the drug is determined and why. 

This mess of insufficient data and widespread false hope stems from profit-oriented drug companies that are left unregulated by a federal government that is far more concerned about its administration’s re-electability. Within both, the blatant disregard for anything but their self-fulfilling motives is reckless and irresponsible. A system that chooses to profit off a global pandemic — off of more than 300,000 deaths — is utterly abominable. It’s cruel to publicize a drug that is minimally researched, and like infectious disease specialist Dr. Andre Kalil said in an interview, compassionate use is “treating emotion.” We are all desperate for good news, but releasing inconclusive data is nothing short of sensationalism. Time and time again, pharmaceutical profits and public health prove to be irreconcilable. The industry ceases to invest in research without financial incentives, but with current federally unregulated financial incentives, the industry completely neglects its consumers’ needs in terms of affordability and accessibility. 

Even prospects of new vaccine developments seem doomed with yet another set of ethical questions and discordant priorities. The ongoing dilemma of equal access to affordable treatment persists, and it becomes clear that the true disease we need to cure this nation of — its diseased sentiments towards basic human well-being —  cannot be pharmaceutically prescribed. Big Pharma acts as a potentially detrimental obstacle in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine with its money and political connections. The industry has the ability to infiltrate and monopolize clinical trials as it has primitively done with remdesivir. But it’s time for Big Pharma to do the right thing — to look beyond its financial motivations and instead support the fight for a cure. The pharmaceutical industry has the potential to rebuild its reputation, but will they be able to look further than the ill-suited opportunity for exploitation a pandemic offers? Maybe that’s too much to ask, but human health is more than a fluctuating market, and, unlike the Dow Jones, fatal cases cannot be revived.

Easheta Shah can be reached at shaheash@umich.edu.