Drugs

As Americans Increasingly Seethe at Big Pharma's Money Racket, Govt Is Coddling Its Power More Than Ever

U.S. government is erasing the few regulatory firewalls that have existed and tolerating alarming conflicts of interest.

Photo Credit: Flickr, TaxRebate.org.uk

Public anger at Pharma and its outrageous prices has never been higher. First a smirking Martin Shkreli, founder of Turing Pharmaceuticals, refused to explain or defend his price hike of the antiparasitic drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 on the Hill in February, a price hike that could put the life-saving drug out of reach for some. With clear derision for regulators and the public itself, he tweeted that lawmakers were “imbeciles” after he testified. Then Mylan jacked the price of its EpiPen, an emergency allergy treatment that saves lives, to $600 up from the $100 almost overnight this summer. After public uproar, Mylan offered EpiPen cost breaks to low-income people--a common Pharma ruse that simply shifts costs to others while letting Pharma keep its prices.

And even as U.S. Pharma companies profiteer on older drugs like Daraprim (and newer drugs like the hepatitis C drug Sovaldi which costs $84,000 a course of treatment), they try to duck U.S. taxes with overseas partnerships and incorporations. The same taxes that fund their drugs in Medicare, TRICARE, the VA and other U.S. entitlement programs.

Pharma may be becoming one of the public's most reviled sectors but the U.S. government is in the process of erasing the few regulatory firewalls that have existed and tolerating alarming conflicts of interest.

Exhibit A is the nomination and confirmation earlier this year of Robert Califf as FDA Commissioner despite financial links to 23 Pharma companies including Johnson & Johnson, Lilly, Merck, Schering Plough and GSK according to a statement on the website of Duke Clinical Research Institute which he directed. In disclosure information for an article in Circulation, Califf also lists financial links to Gambro, Regeneron, Gilead, AstraZeneca, Roche and other companies and equity positions in four medical companies. Califf “served as a director, officer, partner, employee, advisor, consultant or trustee for Genentech,” said the Medscape website. This is an FDA Commissioner?

In the past, someone so heavily funded by industry would not be considered for a government position regulating that very industry. Yet on PBS, Califf saw no problem with doctors and researchers receiving Pharma money and actually thought it desirable. "Many of us consult with the pharmaceutical industry, which I think is a very good thing," he told host Susan Dentzer. "They need ideas and then the decision about what they do is really up to the person who is funding the study," he said.

Califf was an early cheerleader for the blood thinning drug Xarelto which is now linked to at least 500 deaths and possible, high level medical deception.

These Two Institutes Turn Toward Industry

Other government units are also tilting toward Pharma. In a recent editorial, John Markowitz, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia, lamented that at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), under the leadership of recently departed director Thomas Insel, translational research (which tends to be Pharma focused) "has become virtually required for funding" with almost no clinical, non-drug research funded.

Insel, an early proponent of SSRI antidepressants (which he said "soothed people’s symptoms within weeks, much faster than standard psychotherapy"), left government to work at a billion dollar, semi-secret private venture betweenGoogle and Pharma last year. The CEO of the new Google life sciences venture is former Genentech chairman Art Levinson. As NIMH director while national alarm about toddlers on stimulant drugs was growing, Insel protested"under treatment" of children with ADHD drugs.

Finally, even as drug addiction, especially to opioids, becomes a leading cause of death in the U.S., Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), is looking to Pharma to find a "vaccine" for drug addiction.  Shouldn't Volkow know, as head of the Institute, there is no "cure" or vaccine for addiction--that it is widely viewed as a physical, psychological and spiritual disease? Has she ever talked to Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, for example, who, as an addict himself, advocates non-drug, non-Pharma, peer treatment for addiction? (And shouldn't NIDA replace "drug abuse" with the non-judgmental "addiction"?)

Volkow and Insel's love of industry has also caused them to conduct disturbing animal experiments reminiscent of the noir researcher Henry Harlow. The medical establishment is increasingly reconsidering such invasive and unnecessarily cruel research.

To stay a Wall Street darling, Pharma is gouging drug prices, fleeing overseas and forming semi-secret partnerships with cyber giants. The public is appalled--and government is helping out.

 

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Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter and the author of "Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health (Random House)."