Wednesday, 13 October 2010

NHS should fight back against profiteering drug companies

Antibiotics are beginning to fail. For someone completely dependent on antibiotics every day (3 different types daily and a few administered directly into my veins every couple of months) this worries me.

There are already a few strains of CF bugs that are resistant to most antibiotics - they are the true bogeymen of the CF world, talked about in hushed tones - and the common chest infection that most CF people have, pseudomonas, shows on and off resistance to the usual antibiotics.

But even I, someone who is more interested in antibiotic resistance than the average member of the population, was shocked to read recently that there have only been two new classes of antibiotics invented in the LAST THIRTY YEARS.

We should all be worried - infections are a bit like freedom fighters, they've got nothing to lose, everything to win and are highly proficient at adapting and resisting any of the tactics we use to try and kill them. And to be frank we've barely varied our tactics since 1980.

David Brennan, Chief Exec of big drug company Astra Zeneca has called upon the public sector to work with it to help find a way to solve the problem of antibiotic resistance. This is because drug companies see little value to their shareholders in spending money creating new antibiotics because the speed at which infections become resistant to them does not make it a worthwhile investment, regardless of the human benefit.

A spokesman for Astra Zeneca was quoted as saying: ""If we think [a treatment is] not commercially viable, we can give it to somebody in the public sector who is willing to spend money to develop it."

But to me this statement seems very one-sided. Drug companies make vast profits from the NHS - just look at the controversy surrounding GlaxoSmithKline's 10 per cent profit increase on the back of the swine flu panic. Plus their patent protection on drugs allows them to keep the cost of purchase high for a substantial period of time before they are legally obliged to divulge drug ingredients to allow cheaper, non-brand versions of the drug to be created.

A commercial approach to medicine works if profit proves an effective driver to creating new treatments. But if a focus on profit also means that vital drug treatments do not receive investment then to me something is clearly wrong with the system.

It has bothered me for some time that the NHS doesn't seem to use its huge buying power to exert demands upon drug companies. It must be one of the biggest, if not the biggest unified drug purchaser in the world, and it seems crazy that pharmaceutical companies are selling drugs to our Government at a vast profit but then also telling the Government to spend its own money creating cures for diseases that are unattractive to pharmaceutical shareholders.

I wonder what Astra Zeneca's reaction would be if the NHS said it would only buy its leading antibiotics for the whole of the UK population if they invested a proportion of the resulting profit in creating new antibiotics? Negotiation and bartering are the key to any purchasing agreement and at the moment it seems the Government is held to ransom over the threat of allowing its citizens to develop untreatable infections, when it should actually be using its huge monetary resources to ensure it holds the advantage over drug companies.

If we are forced to take a commercial approach to drug treatments, then the Government should quickly learn that two can play that game.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. The government needs to be more savvy in general when dealing with the private sector.