Thursday, February 02, 2012

We either believe in markets or we don’t

Yesterday Rick Santorum (who has an ill/dying child himself), after sneering at people for complaining about the high prices of drugs when they pay $900 for an iPod, and they just want health care for free, told a mother whose son depends on a million-dollar-a-year drug that  “He’s alive today because drug companies provide care. And if they didn’t think they could make money providing that drug, that drug wouldn’t be here. ... Fact is, we need companies to have incentives to make drugs. If they don’t have incentives, they won’t make those drugs. We either believe in markets or we don’t.”

This gives me an excuse to bring up Eflornithine again. That’s a drug that’s effective against sleeping sickness, but the pharmaceutical company that owned the patent stopped manufacturing it in the mid-1990s because they weren’t seeing enough of those “incentives” Santorum touts, as is the case with drugs treating diseases that affect small numbers of people or, in this case, large numbers of poor people in sub-Saharan Africa.

There was a happy ending for the Africans, though. Eflornithine also treats unwanted facial hair in rich white women, and that’s a market Big Pharma knows how to market to, so it went back into production.

Drugs can also be problematic from the capitalist point of view if they’re too successful. In 2006, Genentech blocked the use of colon cancer drug Avastin for blindness because it was successful in such low quantities that it cost only $42 a dose, whereas the no-more-effective drug in common use for macular degeneration cost $1,600 a dose.

We either believe in markets or we don’t.

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