Governments have vast financial interests that skew their medical research.
This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post
EpiPen’s pharmaceutical manufacturer, Mylan, has been excoriated in the press for mercilessly jacking up prices on hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Americans whose lives are at risk from allergies. The U.S. government, too, has been excoriated, for creating a regulatory system that allows pharmaceutical companies like Mylan to game the system, keeping out competitors that could provide equal or better lifesaving products at a fraction of the cost.
But the government’s culpability is far more profound, because it not only bears responsibility for the financial anguish of people with allergies, asthma and other autoimmune diseases who must rely on lifesaving drugs. It also bears much of the responsibility for their physical anguish. While autoimmune diseases have been soaring, the government has done little to determine why these diseases are now running rampant, and much to ensure no one else does either.
The statistics tell the tale of rising afflictions, and it is especially grim and getting grimmer for our young — many of these ailments were less frequent, some even unknown, mere decades ago. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), allergies among children have increased by about 50 per cent over the 17-year period ending in 2011, with food allergies rising to afflict one child in 20 and skin allergies one child in eight. According to a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, chronic health conditions such as asthma and learning disabilities among children doubled in the 12-year period ending in 2006, to afflict one child in four. The most dramatic rise of all has come in autism rates, which in 1975 afflicted just one child in 5,000. By 2000, one child in 250 had autism, by 2010 one in 110, by 2014, one in 68. Boys are especially hard hit: one in every 42, or more than two per cent of boys now come down with autism.
What has caused the galloping increases in these ailments and others — Alzheimer’s, obesity and diabetes among them — that seemingly stem from failures in our autoimmune system? The root causes are largely unknown, although theories abound. Is our immunity failing because our society has become obsessed with hygiene, relying on Purell sanitizers to the detriment of our body’s natural defences? Are we facing this new onslaught of disease because we’re eating GMOs? Because we’re being over-vaccinated? Is it an overuse of antibiotics? The emulsifiers that have become ubiquitous in our food? Glysophate, the suspect in Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup? Aluminum? All of the above?
The for-profit pharmaceutical companies can be forgiven for ignoring basic science and root causes in their research. Mylan has no financial interest in discovering whether eliminating GMOs would wipe out half its market, just as Purell has no financial interest in discovering whether an unsterile environment would strengthen our immune systems and render its sanitizers obsolete. But governments and their agencies, which fund and control the lion’s share of medical studies, like the for-profit companies also have vast financial interests that skew their research.
The U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH), the world’s largest funder of health research, typically acquires patents on research it funds, giving it an immense patent portfolio and an immense conflict of interest — NIH has sway with the entire regulatory apparatus surrounding medical inventions. After NIH shepherds its patent applications through the U.S. government’s patent office, which must judge the merits of its proposed patents, NIH then commercializes its patents by licensing pharmaceutical giants such as Merck to conduct clinical trials to determine the invention’s safety and efficacy — a process that involves NIH’s sister agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC. After NIH secures regulatory approvals, the government and the pharmaceutical companies share in the profits of drugs that are given market monopolies.
In effect, the pharmaceutical industry is largely a self-regulated public-private medical-industrial complex in which the U.S. government decides what area of research is worth investigating and whether it should then grant itself a monopoly on the fruits of that research, along with the lucre that would flow from it. Because profits aren’t had when products can’t be patented and commercialized, this public-private partnership has no interest in uncommercializable research that would benefit patients, let alone in research that would undermine the value of their existing patents.
The government’s financial conflict of interest and its intimate relationship with industry lead it to promote medical research that aims to pharmaceutically treat disease rather than end it. But government-funded research fails in finding cures for another reason, too: When governments fund research, the research is inevitably politicized, subject to partisan and ideological biases. Those political biases, as we will see next week in the second in this series, are just as culpable in the failure of research to understand why so many of us have become so much more sick than in the past. The inescapable conclusion: To maximize the health of the population, we must minimize the government’s role in directing medical research.
Lawrence Solomon is a policy director of Consumer Policy Institute. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.
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