It’s the patients who get left behind.
At the start of January the world’s third largest pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, announced that they are pulling their funding for research into a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The move was described by James Pickett from the Alzheimer’s Society as a “heavy blow to the estimated 46.8 million people currently living with the condition across the globe”.
Fifteen years have passed since the last time a new Alzheimer’s drug was launched, and Pfizer’s decision to end its research undermines hopes of a new development coming soon. It also raises the question: how long will it be before other drug companies follow suit - and what happens at that point?
Despite other pharma companies restating their commitment to Alzheimer’s research, the reality is that potential profits - not public health need - are what drive their decision making. It doesn’t matter how serious a disease is, if the numbers don’t add up then “investors will not let drugmakers throw good money after bad forever”.
Eli Lilly are waiting on the results of a drug called aducanumab which is currently in Phase III trials. If those trials fail, will they turn their attention to an easier problem with easier profits?
This begs the question, what will happen to patients who are suffering from diseases where the financial returns on finding a cure do not seem to justify the costs? Alzheimer’s disease is by nature an expensive disease to research, as it is slow to develop and clinical trials must take place over many years. The longer we go without a breakthrough, the less financially desirable research into this disease becomes.
The problem is that by incentivising research and development through the promise of profits during a 20 year monopoly, we encourage companies to focus their spending where they think they will get the most reward relative to investment. That translates into the harsh reality that if the financial benefits of finding a cure do not justify the cost of that research then it won’t be done. This is why, despite killing nearly two million people a year tuberculosis is a neglected disease, and why Pfizer have turned their backs on millions of people with Alzheimer’s who are still waiting for a cure.
We believe that it is wrong that medical research priorities are determined by the potential they hold to enrich drug company bosses and shareholders. Instead, public health should drive pharmaceutical R&D. We pay for the research through our contributions to medical research charities, government research grants, and through our taxes which the NHS uses to buy the medicines. We should be able to hold the pharmaceutical companies to account, and for that we need transparency: how much are they spending on R&D and marketing, how much are they charging for the medicines, and they should share all details of clinical trials.
Ultimately, we need to ensure we have a fair system to ensure the drugs that are being developed are the drugs that we need, and importantly that they’re priced at a level that patients and health services can afford. Read more about what we want to see happen here: https://justtreatment.org/solution