Opinions & Features June 10, 2016 at 05:00 am

Pharmaceutical Company Refuses To Make Cancer Drugs Accessible to Africans

Mark Babatunde June 10, 2016 at 05:00 am

June 10, 2016 at 05:00 am | Opinions & Features

In modern conventional medicine, the standard approach for managing or curing diseases is a treatment regimen that equally combines professional care and the use of effective drugs, with both components of treatment being equally important.

The head of pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca Pascal Soriot, however, believes professional care — or the lack thereof — is more important than access to drugs, especially in regards to the drug treatment of cancer, which his company manufacturers, in Africa.

In a BBC News interview, Soriot said, “In some parts of Africa, we could give our products away and it would make no difference.

“It is not only a question of medicine, it is a question of infrastructure. Where is the hospital? Where is the doctor?

“One of the things we have to do is educate physicians so the diseases can be diagnosed and treated.”

In Soriot’s professional opinion, inadequate medical or healthcare providers are the most-significant barrier to the treatment of cancer in Africa. Soriot believes that a lack of trained doctors — not the cost or availability of drugs — is the biggest health issue for the world’s poorest countries.

And indeed, in Africa, a critical gap does exist between the numbers of available healthcare providers and the numbers required to effectively serve the population.

Soriot’s statement came in response to questions about the likely high prices and unaffordability of the drug his company manufactures, which effectively puts the medicines out of reach for the sick and poor in Africa.

A close examination makes it easy to see the reasons for Soriot’s answers, which are simply untrue. But then in reality, he was responding just as any chief executive of a big pharmaceutical company would.

He sought to untie himself from a possible ethical/humanitarian conundrum that would require him to sell or give up expensive patent drugs to sick and indigent cancer sufferers in Africa, or anywhere else for that matter, at a price that is next to nothing.

Soriot knows better than to sell the drugs at an affordable rate. If he did, how would he cover the huge costs of the cutting-edge research and development that went in to the making of the new drugs? And how would he explain the fall in AstraZeneca’s expected profits to shareholders and company executives at the next board meeting?

Therefore, Soriot kicked the proverbial can further down the road and blamed the suffering of cancer patients in poor countries on a lack of doctors.

It is important to stress that drug companies must be properly compensated for their efforts through reasonable pricing or there would be no incentives for future research and development. However, it is important to draw a line between operational challenges that would no doubt affect prices and fail to fulfill corporate greed.

A case in point was the controversy surrounding the supply and pricing of anti-retroviral drugs for the treatment of AIDS in Africa in the early 2000s. Then, thousands of infected people were dying from a largely treatable disease simply because big pharmaceutical companies blocked access to life-saving drugs for millions of Africans.

They feared allowing easy access to the production of cheaper generic variants could set a precedence that would weaken exploitative trade laws that they benefited from.

Still, later in his statement, Soriot added that his company has been offering extremely affordable medications for the treatment of high blood pressure in Africa, which is, in his opinion, a much larger problem to Africans than cancer.

With that product, though, he failed to argue that healthcare professionals are more important than drugs in the treatment of high blood pressure.

But then there isn’t any money to be made from holding back access to drugs for the treatment of hypertension.

While it is true that simply throwing expensive drugs at a disease will not make it go away, it is equally offensive to find that the same pharmaceutical companies that generally overlook Africa in the grand scheme of things with regards to the production, marketing, or access to latest advancements in patent drugs and medication, have no qualms in making Africa a huge guinea pig for risky clinical trials and the testing of new unapproved drugs.

So, Mr. Pascal Soriot — and all of you at AstraZeneca — congratulations on your breakthrough treatment for cancer.

But please remember, Africa deserves your cancer drugs too.

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