February was a ‘lively’ month in the pharmaceutical sector. GSK attracted yet another £37m fine for illegal practices on 12th February. Although a record-breaker in itself, as the largest fine ever to be handed to a drugs company by a UK competition regulator, for size, it pales into insignificance by their own standards, since they set the pharmaceuticals bar at the current record level of $3bn in 2012.1 Fines of a few million like this can be seen as simply a reasonable marketing cost, merely serving to uphold the seemingly true adage, in this field at any rate, that ’crime pays’. This time they got caught out for buying the inactivity of smaller companies that would otherwise have weighed in with cheap generic alternatives to a GSK blockbuster, once their patent had expired. By paying out £50m, they managed to ‘suppress’ any competition and keep the gravy-train rolling a bit longer.2 Seroxat sales in one year in the UK alone were £90m. How a fine of a mere £37m is proportionate for this, I fail to understand.
But far more difficult to grasp is the manner in which criminal misdeeds that led not only to undeserved profits but also to enormous suffering and the deaths of thousands - as has been the case in many high-profile cases - could lead solely to affordable fines and not to the prosecution of a single executive for manslaughter, let alone crimes against humanity. Furthermore, when ordinary mortals are convicted of repeating a serious crime they are treated more severely than the first time. Pharmaceutical giants however, seem to manage to arrive in court with a clean slate time and time again - they just pay the fine and then it’s business as usual, whilst others pay the real price.
Ministers launch urgent inquiry into NHS officials' second jobs at drugs firms
Next up, comes another downer for the pharmaceuticals: on 16th February the Telegraph announced that a FOI request had revealed that ‘more than 130 NHS officials involved in assessing which drugs are given to patients are also acting as paid consultants to pharmaceutical companies’.5 Alistair Burt, the health minister, was so ‘shocked’ by this totally unexpected ‘revelation’ that he responded “These are very serious allegations – an urgent investigation is under way and action will be taken against any NHS staff attempting to influence purchasing decisions in return for payment, gifts or hospitality.’
Pharmaceutical firms paying members of panel which oversees NHS drug procurement
And then, just when things were beginning to look a little brighter, on the 18th, the Telegraph printed yet further ‘revelations’ that ‘more than one in three members of the government panel overseeing the NHS’s procurement of medicines across Britain has been carrying out paid work for drugs companies.’7 It looks as though Alistair Burt has his work cut out looking sufficiently shocked and being seen to respond decisively to this onslaught of unexpected ‘news’ - not to mention countering accusations of naivety concerning the basic workings of the organisation he purports to lead.
Dying for a Cure Campaign - Overhaul Cancer Drug Development
It seems that there may now be a unique opportunity to finally tackle these sorts of conflicts of interest within the pharmaceutical industry. In September 2015, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe concluded that conflicts of interest between profits and public health within the pharmaceutical industry have led to a lack of new drugs of real therapeutic benefit in recent years and shocking levels of profiteering. It voted overwhelmingly (94%) in favour of a Resolution to tackle the issue.
One man who lost his wife to ovarian cancer last year, has taken the initiative to set up a formal campaign to urge the UK Government to act on this resolution and implement measures to tackle the conflicts of interest between profits and public health. The campaign is called Dying for a Cure and is linked to a petition on change.org, urging the UK Government to overhaul cancer drug development. If like me, you want to see things change, please make your voice heard by supporting this campaign.
Read more from Robin here