Op-Ed

Drug industry’s quest for profits yields superbugs

McClatchy-Tribune

It has been three years since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention effectively declared victory in the fight against Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA and reported a decrease by over 50 percent in hospital-acquired MRSA infections.

Now the United States is refocusing its efforts on antibiotic development and antibiotic stewardship, designed to both treat and prevent the emergence of infectious superbugs.

But here’s the reality. Buried in files stored on www.medicare.gov and reported to HospitalCompare is documentation that there has been little decrease in MRSA bloodstream infections, possibly even a recent uptick.

Yet now the priority is shifting from preventing person-to-person transmission to what can only be called a quest for another industry bailout as the pharmaceutical industry calls on governments to fund development of new antibiotic drugs to replace those that are no longer effective. The industry has estimated the cost at $2 billion worldwide.

How did we get into this mess? First, as exemplified by the Ebola debacle, the medical industry did not treat drug-resistant organisms as the dangerous pathogens that they are and did not do what truly needed to be done to control their spread.

Instead we adopted a lackadaisical attitude, believing in the mantra “Wash your hands and all will be fine.”

Second, to put it simply, the medical industry became drug pushers, overprescribing and inappropriately prescribing antibiotics, setting in motion the biological processes that produce drug-resistant bacteria and render medicines that were once lifesavers ineffective.

It is easy to just blame the doctors, but the pharmaceutical industry laid the foundations and created this mess. By some estimates the industry spends more on marketing than on research. And the resultant marketing influence and drive to generate short-term profits are major factors in antibiotic overutilization. The CDC now estimates that almost 1 in 3 prescriptions of antibiotics is unnecessary.

Industry funding of doctors with money-laundering meals, consultations, speaker fees and fake get-you-to-use-our-drug research has become all too common.

ProPublica’s Dollars-for-Doctors initiative documents just some of the money: Doctors who received more than $5,000 from industry were 50 percent more likely to prescribe a brand name drug. The same trend was reported in JAMA Internal Medicine which found that even the provision of a “cheap” meal influenced prescription habits.

Many times doctors are oblivious to the subtle, often subconscious effect these gifts have on them.

There is no doubt that bringing an antibiotic to market is a costly venture, requiring an upfront investment of upwards of $1 billion, and often the targeted bacteria become resistant before the cost of development can be recouped.

However, Big Pharma is just that — big. These large corporations boast market capitalization in the hundreds of billions of dollars. In addition, the epidemic of antibiotic-resistant organisms has placed a number of their product lines at risk, including cancer chemotherapeutic agents and immunosuppressant drugs.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria will increase the risks associated with many facets of health care. Fewer elective surgeries will be performed and people will die sooner from chronic diseases. All of which will impact the pharmaceutical industry’s profits. But most importantly, there is a huge moral imperative for the industry to correct this problem, regardless of costs.

Now Big Pharma wants your hard-earned tax dollars to fund the development of new antibiotics and to save the financial integrity and future of the industry, imperiled by its own relentless quest to satiate the demand for short-term profits.

There is no guarantee the plan being pushed by the industry and a coalition of stakeholders will work, but it is our future too and we have nowhere else to turn. The similarities to the banking industry are undeniable; too big to fail has struck again. A gun has been placed to our heads and once again, we will open our country’s coffers that hold our shrinking supply of cash.

Dr. Kevin Kavanagh of Somerset is board chairman of Health Watch USA.

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