A Capitalist Defense of Big Pharma

Capitalism, and the American pharmaceutical industry that thrives under it, saves lives.

With the possible exception of “Big Oil,” there is no industry more demonized in America than the pharmaceutical industry. In some cases, the disdain for “Big Pharma” is both understandable and justified—as with the “commercial triumph” but “public health tragedy” surrounding the sale and regulation of OxyContin. But we are now on the precipice of one of those very pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer Inc., being granted permission by the FDA to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine, in the hopes of eradicating a disease that has killed almost 1.3 million worldwide thus far.

The practice of calling various groups of industries as “Big”-fill-in-the-blank began not too long ago as a propaganda method to demonize specific industries. After the oil spill involving the Exxon Valdez in 1989, the term “Big Oil” came into vogue, as activists worked hard to portray the entire industry as anti-environment. We later saw similar efforts against “Big Finance” as activists went after Wall Street, and finally, “Big Pharma” as they set their sights on capitalist drug-makers.

“Bigness” has a lot of rhetorical power—even the right uses it, in reference to “Big Tech” which describes the growing technology industry. The problem is that the right and left are not unified in their motives for using the term. When the left uses “Bigness” as a descriptor, it is meant to lump together industries that they find problematic, and to dismiss these companies outright. When the right uses the prefix “Big,” it’s to designate industries, sectors, or institutions that have gone awry. Instead of acting in good faith and integrating civic responsibility with individual entrepreneurship, industries like “Big Tech” have engaged in lawlessness.

One of the worst examples of civic irresponsibility among American pharmaceutical companies—and indeed, among companies in any industry—has to be that of Purdue Pharmaceutical. Based in Stamford, CT., Purdue’s outrageously unethical marketing of the then-new painkilling drug OxyContin in the late-1990s began a domino effect leading to the opioid epidemic that still plagues the country, resulting in the deaths of approximately a half-million people. Purdue executives ended up paying out $634.5 million in fines for marketing OxyContin as “less addictive and less subject to abuse than other pain medications.”

And let’s not forget Martin Shkreli, the former hedge fund manager and CEO of the relatively unknown start-up Turing (now Vyera) Pharmaceuticals. Shkreli gained international notoriety when he acquired Daraprim, a 62-year-old drug that is the standard of care for treating a life-threatening parasitic infection and increased the sale price of the drug from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill—a 5,556% increase bringing the annual cost of treatment for some patients to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Intended to treat the disease toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by the consumption of undercooked meat and shellfish, the impact of the Daraprim price increase was predictable. After Turing inflated the medication’s price, hospitals struggled to keep Daraprim in stock, delaying treatment in some cases. Considering that the FDA considers toxoplasmosis as the most lethal food-borne illness, such delays proved highly problematic. “It’s not funny, Mr. Shkreli. People are dying, and they’re getting sicker and sicker,” the Late Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) told Shkreli, as he grinned during the congressman’s opening statement during a hearing on Capitol Hill.

The fact that Shkreli was later sent to prison for securities fraud didn’t soften the hatred toward him. Styling him “Pharma Bro” to mark their disdain, the left relished in his incarceration. Some media outlets regarded him as “The Most Hated Man in America,” and they were probably right. “He’s been called a ‘morally bankrupt sociopath,’ a ‘scumbag,’ a ‘garbage monster’ and ‘everything that is wrong with capitalism.’ And those are some of the tamer comments,” writes the BBC. 

But as often is the case, our friends on the left have done their utmost to hold up Shkreli as the face of capitalism—not a corrupt exception to it. As ever, the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is leading the way: “Our political system is corrupt. Big Money controls much of what happens,” said Sanders when referencing the Turing affair. His then-campaign spokesman Michael Brigg took a more direct shot at capitalism calling Shkreli the, “Poster boy for drug company greed.”

The thing is, Martin Shkreli is no more representative of the typical capitalist than Ted “The Unabomber” Kaczynski is representative of the typical environmentalist.  They are both sociopathic criminals on the most extreme fringes of their particular ideology. But the strategy of using Shkreli as their exemplar for the entire U.S. pharmaceutical industry was not accidental; in fact, it is standard operating procedure for the left, which has a habit of seeking out the single-most extreme example of a situation, point to it as being indicative of the much larger group, and then exploit for the emotional response it generates.

This was the approach of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) when she claimed, “It was unethical when Turing did it, and it was just as unethical when the rest of the pharmaceutical industry jacks up drug prices.” The leftwing media frequently echoes Warren’s sentiment. In an opinion piece last year by The American Prospect, detailing the contention of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) that innovations from Big Pharma are a myth, and that most high profile drugs would not exist if it weren’t for public investment, the liberal magazine asserted: “Pharmaceutical companies routinely engage in price gouging (not to mention research misconduct and public manipulation)—unsavory practices for which there is virtually no oversight… Martin Shkreli, the former pharma CEO and current federal inmate, epitomized this mindset…”

Of the top six pharmaceutical companies in the world, four of them are U.S.-based: Johnson & JohnsonMerck, Pfizer, and AbbVie. Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News magazine reports that the combined revenues of those four companies exceeded $1 trillion in 2019.  No other country’s collective pharmaceutical industry is even remotely close to the impact that U.S. pharmaceutical companies have on the world’s population.

Meanwhile, leftists like Sen. Sanders, and his socialist cronies, regard these numbers as demerits—examples of American capitalism taking advantage of some group of victims. “If the pharmaceutical industry will not end its greed, which is literally killing Americans, then we will end it for them,” Sanders promised in 2019 after Democrats gained control of the house and made lowering prescription drug costs one of their top priorities. In the mind of Sanders and other socialists, making a profit is greed and cannot be tolerated.

LEADING THE WORLD IN PHARMACEUTICAL INNOVATION

In reality, the numbers above reflect the greatness of capitalism and free-markets. That revenue was earned by providing medications and products to satisfy a demand—a demand that, in many cases, was for critical, life-saving drugs. True, U.S. pharmaceutical companies do generate earnings from the sale of non-critical drugs, for maladies such as hair loss and skin imperfections, but such drugs actually make up only a fraction of Big Pharma’s revenue. Of the top ten most prescribed medications in the U.S., four are medications that fight heart disease by addressing high blood pressure or high cholesterol; the remaining six drugs relieve afflictions such as bacterial infections and thyroid deficiencies.

In 2018, almost $80 billion of U.S. pharmaceutical companies’ revenues were used for research and development, a trend that’s been steadily growing since 1995, at least. That was money well-spent, yielding some extremely effective treatments and medical innovation over the years. According to the American Cancer Society, there were over 15 million cancer survivors in the U.S. in 2016, and they expect those numbers to increase to over 20 million by 2026. These improvements for cancer patients are largely due to a multitude of advancements that can be traced back to Big Pharma: advancements in surgical solutions, radiation treatment discoveries, and, of course, drugs and chemotherapy developments that can be attributed to the R&D investments made by pharmaceutical companies. One such recent advancement is Keytruda, a lung cancer drug developed by the U.S.-based Merck & Co and was approved for use in 2014

A study completed last year shows that almost one-quarter of patients treated with Keytruda were still alive after five years—a remarkable improvement from the historic survival rate of 5%.  According to Dr. Edward Garon, a lung cancer specialist from UCLA who led the study, “The uniformly negative outlook that has been associated with a diagnosis of advanced, non-small cell lung cancer is certainly no longer appropriate,” as a result of these improvements made by Keytruda. Lung cancer is easily the most deadly of all cancers and has historically been responsible for more deaths than cancers of the breast, colon, and prostate combined. It’s doubtful many of the patients who have had their lives saved from Keytruda oppose the pharmaceutical industry.

Modern medicine is truly miraculous, and we see evidence of that miracle constantly, and much of those wonders are due specifically to capitalism. The companies that design and manufacture the ultrasound equipment, for instance, that pinpoints tumors make a profit from selling that equipment—and that profit is key to incentivizing new medical innovation and the growth of treatment options for the world’s sick. For instance, GE Healthcare announced last year that a new ultrasound technique they developed can differentiate between malignant and benign breast tumors. Abbott Laboratories, working to develop better methods of testing our blood to identify coronavirus antibodies, and the industry giants working on cancer testing, make a profit from those methods. And the companies who make up Big Pharma—those who develop and sell drugs that save millions of lives every year from the ravages of disease—they make a profit as well.

The next time Sen. Sanders calls Big Pharma a “bunch of crooks,” salivating at the opportunity to ‘profit’ from COVID-19 (as though profit-seeking were somehow corrupt), consider how many jobs the Senator has created and how many lives he’s saved—and of how little use his socialist utopia or free healthcare would be if there were no Americans left alive to enjoy it. For those of us with loved ones who have survived cancer, imagine what their fate would have been without capitalism or Big Pharma.

Pharmaceutical companies are far from perfect—Purdue Pharmaceutical is just one hideous example, and they deserve our scorn. Those companies that engage in criminal behavior like price gouging or false advertising should be held accountable, exposed, and embarrassed when appropriate, and held criminally liable when justified. Purdue marketed OxyContin with the primary purpose of maximizing their profits, kick-starting the opioid epidemic in the process. A drug that may have been developed with the noble goal of helping patients manage their pain ended up causing tremendous harm as a result of the actions of the company’s leadership. Likewise, Martin Shkreli at Turing Pharmaceuticals clearly had profits as his primary objective. 

But while capitalism and the desire for profit may have been the main driver for the misdeeds of Purdue and Turing, it has also been a key aspect in motivating companies such as Merck and others whose innovations save lives. We need Big Pharma—all of us.

With their frequent attacks on the pharmaceutical industry, the left has demonstrated once again their fundamental denial or ignorance of basic human nature. They would have us believe that if we removed the incentive of profit from the calculus of developing medicine, nothing would change except for a decrease in consumer costs. ‘Tax’ Big Pharma.’ ‘Restrict pricing’ for Big Pharma. Stick it to those capitalists in Big Pharma.

But that’s not how it works, and anyone paying attention understands that fact. It’s human nature to want to benefit financially from hard work, risk, and innovation. And there is nothing inherently corrupting in combining your desire to do good in the world and save lives with a drive for profit; we wouldn’t have the R&D capacity we do today without it. There are thousands of scientists and corporate executives who are millionaires today because they were responsible for developing life-saving medicines. Not only should we congratulate them on their financial success, we should collectively shake their hands, and say, “Thank you, and may God bless you.”  

And while we’re at it, may God bless America and our capitalist way of life.

P. F. Whalen, Human Events

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