Today, world-wide health care is a multi-billion dollar industry. According to experts, the large pharmaceutical companies now control much of the health care in many countries. They also set the standards for the practice of medicine in all developing countries. For example, doctors are no longer free to choose the most reliable and safe form of a therapy. Instead, drug companies financially control medical doctors through sponsorships. To learn more about the pharmaceutical business I spoke to Tahir Amin, the co-founder of I-MAK (Initiative for Medicines, Access, & Knowledge). I-Mak is a US – based non profit organization working world wide. With a team of lawyers and scientists, I-MAK wants to increase access to affordable medicines by making sure the patent system works. I-Mak believes that the patent system was designed to balance innovation in medicines and the disseminiation of new treatmets to society. It also believes that the current patent system disproportionately represents and enforces private interests over the public good. Patients' needs must come first.
Why the high prices?
Tahir Amin explained how the pharmaceutical companies justify very high prices on medicine by claiming they need money to cover high Research & Development costs. They also claim to be very innovative and that profits allow research to move forward. Obviously they use some of their profits on research. But the problem is that all the pharmaceutical companies have yet to release the exact numbers. Only a few elites know how much profit actually goes to finance innovation. It is common knowledge that big pharma's profits are enormously high. They continuously get very high profits as measured on the Fortune 500 list in the U.S.
(Please see the full list from 2011 here: http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune500/2011/full_list/)
In 2009 Doctors Without Borders launched a campaign to pressure pharmaceutical companies to share their patent rights of certain antiretroviral HIV/AIDS drugs. If they did, they believed the impact for those who lives with HIV/AIDS would be huge. Such action would make the cure more readily available and affordable. The companies would continue to make profits on their patents; the royalties would be paid by the companies that use their patents. For the listed pharmaceutical companies, this was a unique opportunity to show that they have a humanitarian side, and that they are seriously committed to treating and preventing HIV/AIDS. Tahir Amin explained that the idea was great but that there was a few problems. Not all pharmaceutical companies liked the idea. Johnson & Johnson which holds patent on three key new HIV drugs refused to license these patents to the Patent Pool. Some people living with HIV believed that this idea would give too much power to the companies and accused the companies that actually agreed to the idea to only do so that they would receive very positive press coverage. As it all turned out the patent laws prevented such action. Now Tahir Amin and I-MAK are trying to get change by working towards a more transparent system, where patents don't function as a hindrance for people to afford their medications. What they mostly do is to deliver technical advise on patents and access to medicines. I-MAK also creates an evidence – based approach to improve policy reform and prepares license agreements that ensure new therapies are disseminated to patients. I-MAK provides global patent information on medicines and reviews drug patents to strengthen patent eximination. Last, but not least, they intervene selectively on poor quality patents if the drug is priced too high for patients. I-MAK works with governments, scientists, procurers, suppliers, health organizations and NGO's.
Now we can see a distinct pattern. People living with HIV are dealing with a chronic disease that requires them to take medicines for the rest of your lives. For many HIV positive people this is an economic struggle. Medications are very expensive. Access to medicine varies from country to country. If a patient lives in the US, patients have to cover their medical costs by themselves (even with health insurance a patient can easily end up with a bill around $ 1000 per month). Also, poverty and new HIV infections are closely linked. Heterosexuals who live below the poverty line in the US are five times more likely to get infected with HIV compared to the rest of the nation's heterosexual population. The profit based health care system makes this happen. Pharmaceutical companies live and thrive largely on ill people. Many ask why such corporations would be interested in curing a disease when they earn so much from selling the drugs to HIV AIDS patients? If this is not true, why are they refusing to tell the public where all the profits go?