In this season of giving, it is a sleigh-sized irony that the global pharmaceutical industry behaves like Santa, yet often is denounced as a multinational Scrooge.
The drug industry “needs to moderate its prices and make them more Transparent and equitable,” Harvard Medical School lecturer Marcia Angell, M.D. wrote in the Financial Times last July. “In short, it needs to curb its greed.”
Liberal columnist Molly Ivins has decried Big Pharma’s “greedy, bloodsucking, murderous behavior all over the globe.”
Having failed to defeat President Bush, radical documentarian Michael Moore has shaved his beard and aimed his lens at the drug industry. His new title? Sicko.
AIDS is wiping out Africans due to “the genocidal action of the drug cartels who refuse to make the drugs affordable,” according to Father Angelo D’Agostino, a Jesuit priest and founder of the Children of God Relief Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.
These caricatures completely ignore the fact that major drug companies donate enormous amounts of life-saving products to poor third worlders.
A recent Hudson Institute study illustrates this prescription philanthropy. In “A Review of Pharmaceutical Company Contributions: HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria and Other Infectious Diseases,” Carol Adelman and Jeremiah Norris document the value of drugs that this industry handed out to some of Earth’s most desperate people.
Last year alone, nine major drug companies donated $2.135 billion worth of products and services to combat HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, and other tropical ailments. This sum, Adelman and Norris write, “remains a conservative figure since it does not include cause-related marketing or philanthropic contributions by overseas affiliates.”
Abbott, Becton-Dickinson, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer, and Wyeth donated $1.4 billion in drugs and medical devices; $210 million in in-country logistics, storage, administration, and time volunteered by medical professionals; $210 million in taxes, tariffs, and customs duties; $175 million in additional projects outside an industry consortium called the Partnership for Quality Medicines Donations (PQMD); and $140 million for transportation, insurance, and handling.
Despite the alleged avarice of the “mean, nasty” drug companies, this $2.135 billion in medical charity far outpaced the financial commitment of “caring, loving” government agencies that reputedly “put people, before profits.” Compare Big Pharma’s foreign aid with that of public-sector donors in 2003:
The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Global Health Budget stood at $1.374 billion.
The World Health Organization’s budget was $1.37 billion.
European Commission spending on HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria totaled $451 million.
In 1958, the World Council of Churches asked each developed nation to give poor countries 0.7 percent of its Gross Domestic Product annually. While Adelman and Norris report that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development “has since abandoned this percentage,” as have most wealthy nations, the PQMD companies’ $2.135 billion in pharmaceutical gifts equaled 0.95 percent of their $224.3 billion in combined 2003 revenues.
Huge numbers aside, consider just three projects these corporations financed:
Pfizer donated $48 million to overseas HIV/AIDS programs, including $39 million in medication. Last October, it opened a $15 million testing and training facility in Kampala, Uganda. It will treat 10,000 AIDS patients annually. Pfizer also linked University of Utah medical specialists with 250 of their African counterparts at Uganda’s Makere University. Each African is expected to instruct 10 others. (Full disclosure: Pfizer has paid me to address several corporate events.)
Glaxo last year distributed, at discounted rates, 27,000 anti-retroviral HIV/AIDS treatments to patients in 56 nations.
Merck shielded 40 million Africans from river blindness in 2003. While ingesting Mectazin tablets has transformed the tse tse fly from an opthalmological nightmare into a dermatological nuisance, 62.5 million acres of once-abandoned, fly-laden riversides have been repopulated. As river blindness fades to black, that property, Norris says, now produces enough food to nourish 17 million people.
Merck presumably is among the “genocidal” drug cartels whose “unaffordable” costs propagate AIDS. Nevertheless, even the aforementioned Father D’Agostino’s group in Kenya reportedly purchases Merck’s anti-HIV drugs at what the company calls “no profit” prices.
So, what are the pharmaceutical sector’s motives? Drug executives simply could have huge hearts and, literally, boatloads of compassion. Perhaps this largesse is a coldly calculated business technique designed to appease angry activists and assuage regulatory busybodies. Maybe it is a mixture of both. That hardly matters to vulnerable third worlders. America’s supposedly villainous drug companies stand shoulder to shoulder with these human beings as they battle disease.
If the pharmaceutical sector can be faulted for anything, it is for being so bafflingly bashful about publicizing their great works around the world. The simple fact is that without the drug companies’ ten-figure philanthropy, millions of destitute Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans would spend this Christmas Day face-down in the dirt.