Will the Pharmaceutical Industry Eradicate Disease?

By Brian Lowther

I think the body of Christ is uniquely positioned to play a crucial new role in the fight against eradicable disease. To explain why, it’s important to identify the major players, the people and organizations that are already at work. First up is the pharmaceutical industry.

Now, I know it’s the in-thing to bash pharmaceuticals. While I’m not here to defend Big Pharma, I wonder where we would be without them? If it weren’t for pharmaceuticals there would be a lot more suffering, cold symptoms, headaches, missed work, high blood pressure, bad cholesterol, depression and sexual dysfunction. If we did not have a pharmaceutical industry, I’d want someone to invent one. Plus, Big Pharma employs a lot of people. According to Forbes, as many as 300,000 people work in just the three largest companies alone. Also, I’d never want to imply that people who work for pharmaceuticals are any less ethical than those who work in other industries. I know two friends employed by pharmaceuticals, and both have substantial integrity.

That being said, like a lot of people, Ralph Winter had strong feelings about pharmaceuticals. I’ve been studying his writings on the subject recently. Here are a few choice gems:

"Where there is no income there is no business. The medical/pharmaceutical complex gravitates to artificial substances that can be patented and sold at a very high price, and to medicines for chronic diseases which ensure that their customers will be long term. That's just 'good business.'"

And this one:

"Neither in the practice of medicine (doctors and hospitals) nor in the pharmaceutical world is there—nor can there be—significant concern or focus upon the origins of disease. Why? People pay to be cured. They don’t readily offer their life savings to attack the roots of diseases they do not yet have…"

I know a scientist or two who might take issue with Winter’s statements above. One researcher friend told me, “Every researcher believes they are working to eradicate disease.” But when I’m with non-researchers and the conversation turns to pharmaceuticals, I hear this same sentiment: “Pharmaceuticals won’t eradicate disease because they don’t want to dry up their income stream.”

Admittedly, there is some truth to it. Dr. Marcia Angell—Member of Harvard School of Social Medicine and former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine—makes that case very clearly in her book The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It.

And honestly, it makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s logical from a business standpoint. But it just seems too devious to me. Am I naïve?

I followed my naivety and found that there are at least two pharmaceutical companies that donate medication to eradication efforts. In 1987 Merck started donating Mectizan which prevents river blindness. In 1998 GlaxoSmithKline started donating albendazole which treats lymphatic filariasis.

But here again, these are donations, not revenue streams. Pharmaceuticals can’t expect to satisfy their shareholders by donating all of their products. After all, a successful eradication effort by definition puts itself out of business.

Thus it doesn’t look like we can rely on the pharmaceutical industry to be extensively involved in eradication. Perhaps they can be convinced to donate more medications. But expecting them to change their goal to eradication is like asking the oil industry to change its goal to solar powered cars. That’s where government organizations like the World Health Organization, philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates and other non-profits come into play. But even with the present and potential contributions of these entities, there is room for much more.

This is why I think the body of Christ is uniquely positioned to play a crucial new role in the fight against eradicable disease. Perhaps we could follow the marvelous example of Victoria Hale. But you’ll have to wait until my next entry to find out about her.

Posted on April 16, 2012 and filed under First 30.