What are Big Pharma doing about it?

January 30, 2009 at 8:35 pm (Bad Science, Big Pharma, Code of Ethics, Dangerously Wrong, Homeopathy, Woo) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

This was (roughly) a question asked on Gimpy’s blog by a supporter of homeopathy regarding Aids in Africa.One reader posted this: “Those who oppose Mr. Sherr’s use of homeopathy to help aids victims in Africa – what is Big Pharma’s solution. What is your solution, besides attacking?” [I think it probably includes using ARVs, Rob – and I expect they work a damn sight better than magic water.] Another made this point:

In addressing the “ethical” issue of Jeremy Sherr helping those with AIDS who seek out his care (remember, we do still have a choice of what type of medication to take), I think it is unethical of the drug companies to not provide the drugs free of charge when they easily could. What is THEIR plan for AIDS in Africa, or don’t we know that because they can’t figure out how to do it and make Billions of dollars.

1. Referring to the actions of drug companies unconnected to Sherr does not qualify as “addressing the “ethical” issue of Jeremy Sherr helping those with AIDS”.

2. Suggesting that pharma firms provide free drugs to those with Aids in Africa actually seems like quite a good idea to me. Of course, pharmaceutical firms are in it for the money (they are businesses, not charities) but it is fair, in my opinion, that they should be asked to provide free Aids drugs in countries in the developing world. The suggestion also reminded me of a column by Dr Tom Smith:

[…] how many people know that a dreaded disease was consigned to history in more than 16 countries this year? It’s called filariasis, and the worm larva that causes it produces ‘elephantiasis’ – huge swellings of the legs and other body parts – that totally disables the person unfortunate enough to catch it.

It used to rage around the South Pacific islands and most of Africa. The South Pacific is now free of it, and so are Sri Lanka, Zanzibar and Togo.

That doesn’t sound like much, perhaps, but when you consider that only a few years ago it affected 120 million people worldwide, you get some idea of the massive success story. Much of the credit must go to the pharmaceutical companies who provided the drugs to kill the filaria – free of charge. One of them was the United Kingdom’s Glaxo Smith Kline. Why is it that the media never seem to give credit where it is due?

[The above quote has been reproduced from the Telegraph and Argus website: full column here. jdc makes no claims as to the accuracy or quality of the sites he links to (heh – how’s that for BBC-style weaselling out of your responsibility for linking to other sites).]

So, Tom Smith gives Big Pharma credit where it’s due – but what about that suggestion to give Aids drugs out for free? Well, there is a note in this here post that informs us of drug companies giving away a drug called Nevirapine, “a follow-up drug (with its own side effect problems, it goes without saying) in a single dose reduces maternal HIV transmission from 25% to 15%. It’s given away free for that purpose by the drug company”. More here. There’s another story here about an Indian pharmaceutical company providing anti-Aids drugs at a fraction of the going rate but before anyone gets too carried away with these stories of the generosity and decency of Big Pharma I should point out that not all of the stories in the news have been positive – Glaxo-Wellcome has blocked imports of cheap copies of one of its Aids drugs into Ghana (story from 2000). It’s not all good, but the fact that there have been drug companies giving away Aids drugs in some parts of the world is excellent news and not something that should be ignored. People may think that more should be done and they may wish to support the efforts of governments that have been proactive in attempting to provide a supply of free drugs – for example Brazil or India – but:

“There are 21 AIDS drugs on the market that will all lose their patents eventually. Companies already offer AIDS drugs such as Nevirapine for free in over 40 countries.” Since July 2000, Boehringer Ingelheim has been providing its antiretroviral drug Viramune free of charge to developing countries to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV-1.

(From the Journal of Clinical Investigation). A little googling is all it took to find that some drug companies do indeed provide free Aids drugs in developing coutries.

More on Aids, Big Pharma, and Alternative Medicine:

Gimpy’s Sherr post; Matthias Rath on BadScience.net; the price is right on BadScience.net (it’s about Abbott and Kaletra); “Homeopaths would be fine, if they could just shut up about serious stuff, like Aids, malaria, and MMR.”; Aids Quackery International Tour.


  1. Warhelmet said,

    I’ve spent a frustrating evening trying to install Windows Server on my bog standard Dell Server. I curse Bill Gates, but…

    The Gates Foundation is doing very good work. Or at least, it’s providing money to those doing good work. It’s easy to think of AIDS/HIV research in terms of what Big Pharma do but the reality is that there a whole bunch of people doing research that are funded by government or charities.

  2. apgaylard said,

    Very interesting and balanced post. One of the many problems with the homeopath cheerleaders infecting gimpy’s blog is that their ‘arguments’ are just reflex excuses. No thinking or reading about stuff, just wild nonsense.

    I quite liked the guy (on the first post) who claimed that, “HRT has never been the subject of such a trial [DBRCT] and yet is widely used!” Just plain stupidity.

    His “I have yet to see a successful double blind, placebo controlled study on surgery!” was only slightly more sensible – having surgeons blind to what they are doing being problematic. Though, as anyone with a care to find out knows RCTs are done on surgery; placebo operations have also been used at times, as have more pragmatic trial designs.

    I do wonder whether a lot of the comments on the two posts are what Julian Baggini would call Argumentum ad fatigum. Just wear down the opposition with silly repetitions and huge screeds of irrelevancies.

    I have been taken with the number of tu quoque arguments as well: Big Farmer is unethical – so how can you call us unethical. Nice assumption that all opposition is finacially motivated – the motivation speculation gambit, to draw on Baggini again.

  3. draust said,

    I do wonder whether a lot of the comments on the two posts are what Julian Baggini would call Argumentum ad fatigum. Just wear down the opposition with silly repetitions and huge screeds of irrelevancies.

    ..The sine qua non of this approach being, of course, the drearily ubiquitous John Stone of JABS.

  4. Nash said,

    Thanks for these. I will use these links and refer to this post in Gimpys blog.

  5. gimpy said,

    Very interesting and balanced post. One of the many problems with the homeopath cheerleaders infecting gimpy’s blog is that their ‘arguments’ are just reflex excuses. No thinking or reading about stuff, just wild nonsense.

    I think this stems from homeopathy believing it is in opposition to ‘allopathy’ almost right from its very inception. This belief is so ingrained in homeopathic culture that any criticsm is percieved as coming from the enemies of Hahnemann, the emissaries of allopathy, and can thus be disregarded, perhaps with a fatuous comment about iatrogenic deaths. The other problem is that homeopaths generally lack a proper education. It is inconceivable to them that homeoapthy may not work, they have been taught in a manner in which the recieved wisdom of teachers is to be learned by rote rather than dissected and critically analysed. This ignorance combined with their paranoid philosophy creates a perfect storm of arrogance and stupidity.

    I am firmly of the opinion that homeopaths are incapable of acting sensibly and behaving within the norms of acceptable healthcare practices. The only relevant questions now are how to prevent homeopaths from pacticising (pseudo)medicine. They have shown themselves incapable of regulation so it has to be imposed on them, I think the only acceptable solution is to insist that alternative health care practitioners should also be qualified doctors or nurses or other regulated medical professionals.

  6. gimpy said,

    bollocks, only my first paragraph should b ein blockquotes

  7. Neuroskeptic said,

    To be honest, I find all criticisms of Big Pharma to be very silly. Pharmaceutical companies exist to make a profit – it’s what they do. If you don’t like what they do and you want them to behave differently, you have to get the government to regulate them. Criticising a company for not voluntarily giving away its products is pointless. Either force them to do it with regulations, or don’t, but blaming them for doing what they exist to do seems rather senseless.

    For the same reason, whenever someone blames “greedy bankers” for the economic crisis, I roll my eyes. They’re bankers, they’re meant to be greedy. The whole point of financial regulations is to stop such greedy people from doing damage. If they do, it’s a failure of the regulations, not of the bankers.

  8. Alan Henness said,


    You second paragraph is epic. I’ll be quoting it as often as I can.

  9. jdc325 said,

    “The other problem is that homeopaths generally lack a proper education.”
    Yep – that’s something I referred to here: in my post on Sherr. The study I linked to is here: linky; and it includes a table showing the extent of homeopathy practitioners’ and educators’ knowledge of Aids.

    There’s also the Blogging the Organon site, which is instructive for those who wish to learn what homeopaths are actually taught: http://organon.wordpress.com/

  10. pj said,

    “If they do, it’s a failure of the regulations, not of the bankers.”

    Nonsense – bankers that bankrupt their employers have failed their employers.

  11. jdc325 said,

    Thanks all for the comments – some interesting points raised that I hadn’t even considered (Gates Foundation, Argumentum ad Fatigum, and others).

    Dr Tom Smith seems to be covering similar ground to the Bad Science blogs, in a way. His latest column includes a question on the safety of phone masts and one from a couple of weeks ago looked at Ginkgo Biloba for Alzheimer’s. It’s interesting stuff, but he doesn’t have space to cover subjects in as much detail as teh BadScience bloggers (cf APGaylard’s take on Ginkgo Biloba).

  12. Neuroskeptic said,

    pj: True, but then, the employers failed in hiring them. And as the present situation shows they also failed the nation(s) as a whole. Yet the nation(s) as a whole had decided not to supervise them very closely. A failure of regulation, iow.

  13. jdc325 said,

    Big Pharma story in the media today – GSK “pledge cheap medicine for world’s poor”.
    Includes a promise to “put any chemicals or processes over which it has intellectual property rights that are relevant to finding drugs for neglected diseases into a “patent pool”, so they can be explored by other researchers.”
    Some discussion of the need to patent pool Aids drugs (MSF and Oxfam “both said the company should go further and include HIV drugs in the patent pool”).

    ETA: Discussed here on the Cargo Cult Science blog: breath of fresh air.

  14. Tristan said,

    Cheers for the link. I’ve also linked back to this post on mine.

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