Saturday, January 10, 2015

Big Pharma feeling misunderstood

The CEO of Bayer, Marijn Dekkers, was last month reported to have said the following:

"We did not develop this [cancer] drug for Indians. We developed it for Western patients who can afford it."

What Dekkers said was in response to a question about a decision by an Indian government official to grant a compulsory licence to patents on said cancer drug, on the grounds that Bayer's price for it ($65,000) was far too expensive for Indian patients. Dekkers added that he thought the move towards a compulsory licence -- permitting low-cost generic equivalents to be produced and sold by companies other than Bayer -- was "essentially theft."

A couple of websites condemned the comments as the usual 'profits before persons' standpoint of Big Pharma, albeit stated much more brutally than CEOs of major drug companies generally do.  It turns out that Bloomberg News, who originally ran the quote, actually manipulated it a bit. What Dekkers actually said was:

"Is this going to have a big effect on our business model? No, because we did not develop this product for the Indian market, let's be honest. We developed this product for Western patients who can afford this product, quite honestly. It is an expensive product, being an oncology product." 

Plus compulsory licensing is theft. Bloomberg News rightly corrected itself, although if anything the actual quote sounds even worse.

What is really ironic is that Dekkers' statement was made at a conference called Buffering the Pharma Brand: Restoring Reputation, Rebuilding Trust. It could alternatively been called: we make you sophisticated drugs, that you can't make yourself, so where is the love? The participants in the conference seem bewildered that the public trusts pharmaceutical companies less than producers of alcohol and tobacco. How is this possible? In this regard, Dekkers' statement may have inadvertently been the most insightful 'take home' message of that particular get-together.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

New Year ruminations on global bioethics

The New Year is a good time to reflect on where one has been and where one is going. What have I accomplished or failed to accomplish? What can I do better? It is hard to know whether Julian Savulescu wrote his recent essay in the Journal of Medical Ethics (‘Bioethics: why philosophy is essential for progress’) in a bit of a fin d’annee funk. But it certainly sounds like it: his conclusion is that bioethics and medical ethics as fields have largely failed, and he seriously doubts that he as a bioethicist has made much of a positive impact over the past two decades. What is the malaise, and what is the antidote?
According to Savulescu, bioethics and medical ethics have failed because the philosophical engine that powers ethics has been allowed to wither. In fact, much of his article is devoted to deftly exposing what he considers crappy ethical reasoning. While one may not be a fan of Savulescu’s brand of consequentialism, and/or why he thinks certain positions are untenable, you cannot fault him for failing to present clear ethical arguments in support of his views. This is part of his point: bioethics is being overrun by intellectual laziness in the form of unreflective adherence to ethical-sounding catch phrases (‘humans have dignity’), slavish appeal to existing codes and regulations, or failures to distinguish empirical claims from normative ones. The paragraph that really struck me was the following:
I left a promising career in medicine to do bioethics because I had done philosophy in 1982 and attended Peter Singer’s lectures in practical ethics. The field was new and exciting and there were original proposals and arguments. Singer, Glover, Parfit, Lockwood and others were breaking new ground, giving new analyses and arguments. Now medical ethics is more like a religion, with positions based on faith not argument, and imperiously imposed in a simple minded way, often by committees or groups of people with no training in ethics, or even an understanding of the nature of ethics.
The remedy for this, according to Savulescu, is to go back to basics. Bioethics is a branch of ethics. Ethics is a philosophical discipline, and philosophy (certainly in its Western, Socratic form) is all about critically examining claims and offering the best arguments one can. 

To the extent that Savulescu’s diagnosis is right, bioethics may be in globally rough shape. To make my own start-of-the-New-Year confession, I have been involved with initiatives to strengthen bioethics in sub-Saharan African countries for a decade now. One of the greatest challenges faced by those initiatives is to stimulate critical philosophical thinking. Trainees often expect the ‘right answers’ or ‘correct values’, which are then to be applied mechanically to particular problems.  This may be due to educational systems that elevate professors high above students, and encourage learning by rote while downplaying critical engagement with what is being taught. In addition, I have found that much of the interest in ‘bioethics’ in developing countries too often boils down to the (institutional) interest in establishing and sitting on research ethics committees. Whatever the causes of the trend may be, the net result may be the globalization of a diluted bioethics that ‘is more like a religion.’ Those of us involved in such initiatives need to seriously reflect on this phenomenon, to what extent we contribute to it, and what can be done to minimize or counteract it.

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