War in Iraq. A new front in Somalia. Ships, troops and planes lurking on the borders of Iran. Every day seems to deepen the shadow over the dark valley of our times. Driven by a reckless regime in Washington and the increasingly strident reaction it provokes, and by growing financial and social inequities stranding billions of people in poverty and despair, the geopolitical scene appears locked in a cycle of conflict and chaos that nothing can break.
A quiet announcement at London's Hammersmith Hospital at the turning of the new year heralded a breakthrough that has the potential to be one of the most transformative developments ever seen in global affairs: a positive change on a par with - or even surpassing - the world-altering malignancies of war, greed and strife. But this boon could be strangled in its cradle by the vast corporate interests threatened by its radical new approach to both health care and business.
The approach is called "ethical pharmaceuticals," and it was unveiled on January 2 by Sunil Shaunak, professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College, and Steve Brocchini of the London School of Pharmacy, the Guardian reports. Their team of scientists in India and the UK, financed by the prestigious Wellcome with technical assistance from the UK government, have developed a method of making small but significant changes to the molecular structure of existing drugs, thereby transforming them into new products, circumventing the long-term patents used by the corporate giants of Big Pharma to keep prices - and profits - high. This will give the world's poorest and most vulnerable people access to life-saving medicines - now priced out of reach - for mere pennies.
The breakthrough is not merely biochemical. Shaunak's team is proposing a new model for the pharmaceutical business. The patent of the transformed drug they have developed is held by non-profit Imperial University. And because their methods are hundreds of millions dollars cheaper than the mammoth development costs of the big pharmaceutical companies - whose spending on marketing and advertising often dwarfs their funding of scientific research - Shaunak and his colleagues can market their vital medicines for infectious diseases at near-giveaway levels, yet still stay in business. How so? By forgoing the profit motive as the ultimate value of their work.
Persons in academic medicine have a choice," Shaunak told an Imperial College journal. "They can use their ideas and creativity to make large sums of money for small numbers of people, or they can look outwards to the global community and make affordable treatments for common diseases."
The first drug developed by the team is a new version of interferon, the main treatment for Hepatitis C, a debilitating disease that afflicts 200 million people worldwide. Yet only 30 million can afford the medicine. That leaves the rest to face the chronic liver disease and premature death that the illness inflicts. The cost of Hepatitis C treatment in the UK is approximately $13,000 per patient per year, New Scientist reports. Nor can a cheaper version of the existing interferon be made, because Big Pharma players Hoffman-La Roche and Schering Plough hold patents not only on the drug but also on the standard way of adding the special molecules needed to enhance its performance.
That whirring sound you hear in the background is Adam Smith spinning in his grave! This Professor Shaunak sounds like a pretty subversive guy; one wonders how he got into the UK. Just another example of the pitfalls of immigration.
Update: Boys and girls, you might want to read what Digby said on a similar subject.