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  • Writer's pictureStudents for Global Health UCL

Big Pharma: Friend or Foe?

In terms of global health actors, ‘big pharma’ is one of the big names on the block. It’s the nickname given to the pharmaceutical industry, often used by critics to describe the strategies used by companies who produce drugs for profit maximization. Some of the big names under the ‘big pharma’ umbrella, include: Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis. These firms earn billions each year; do they put profit before people?

Some people despise big pharma. They believe they are money-making corporations who use patents to drive their high prices, often leading to issues with distribution in developing countries who cannot afford such expensive medicines. Yet when these companies spend so many years and so much money researching and developing new drugs, can they be expected to give up their profits and let generic drugs ‘steal their market’? Despite needing their profits to fund future research, not all new drugs are financed solely by the drug companies themselves. In fact, in the USA and Europe, around 30-60% of research and development for anti-retroviral drugs is funded by public money. So are the high prices of ‘big pharma’ drugs even necessary?

Nevertheless contrary to their profit focused image, the pharmaceutical industry has in fact taken on a number of charitable initiatives in recent years. In some cases, this has involved the distribution of free drugs for diseases ranging from river blindness to malaria. However regardless of these philanthropic schemes, the industry has received huge criticisms in the past. One such example involves the ‘wonder drug’ for sleeping sickness, a disease that has devastated parts of central Africa. Despite being in circulation for 10 years, the drug is only just being made available to developing countries and charities such as MSF. How can these companies justify withholding such critical medicines from the most needy people? 

Evidently, the big pharma debate raises many questions, of both financial and moral dimension. Despite their marked focus on profit making, drug companies are extremely vital for the production of new lifesaving drugs. So, whilst it wouldn’t be right to call big pharma a friend, it certainly is needed on the global health scene if any progress in drug developing and manufacturing is to be made!

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