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Jonathan Milne: NZ will not be bullied by Trump and his Big Pharma donors

14 May 2018 Opinion: Jonathan Milne - Stuff

OPINION: It’s a part of the world that the world had forgotten – until now. In remote Congo, there are 18 dead and 33 suspected cases of the nightmare virus ebola.

These are numbers that may seem small to the big pharmaceutical companies that have failed for generations to research drugs to combat tropical diseases. Wealthy Americans will pay far more for drugs, so that’s where the drug companies invest their research funds.

This Congo outbreak is 15 hours by motorbike from the closest town, with “absolutely dire” infrastructure. But the World Health Organisation is moving fast, sending in up to 40 experts by helicopter this weekend and clearing an airstrip to bring in more supplies. It does not want to be accused of sitting on its hands as was the case in 2014, when the virus swept through West Africa and killed 11,000 people.

“This is going to be tough and it’s going to be costly to stamp out this outbreak,” says Peter Salama, WHO’s deputy director-general of emergency preparedness.

This time, the hazmat-suited medics bring hope in 300,000 vials. A new, experimental vaccine, which the international vaccine alliance Gavi has bought off American pharmaceutical company Merck & Co for an eye-watering US$5 million. Merck didn’t develop it, of course – no doubt its scientists were too busy creating new erectile dysfunction pills for wealthy Florida retirees.

The vaccine was created at the Canadian government’s National Microbiology Laboratory. Only governments and charities are willing to invest in drugs for poor people. But Merck was happy to buy the rights, manufacture it and sell it for a hefty mark-up to those who will die without it.

The same big drug companies play similarly cynical games here. It was Merck that happily exploited the misery of cancer sufferers lobbying the New Zealand government for Pharmac to fund the extortionately-priced Keytruda. In the face of an emotive PR campaign, Pharmac stood its ground and instead negotiated the purchase of an even better cancer drug, Opdivo, at a far lower price.

Merck, outsmarted, was forced to come crawling back to the table to supply Keytruda for a more reasonable price. Pharmac was able to fully-fund both drugs for all the Kiwis who need it – thanks to that agency’s conscientious negotiators, and a single desk drug-buying structure that has served New Zealand well.

It should come as no surprise, then, that US President Donald Trump this weekend announced he planned to smash such structures. He accused countries like New Zealand of paying just a tiny fraction of what the medicine costs in the USA, of not contributing their share to the research and development costs.

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