Sometimes, though their implacable foes would refuse to acknowledge it, big corporations do the right thing even without a metaphorical gun at their heads. This week’s Economist magazine relates an amazing example that the public needs to know about, especially since it challenges popular stereotypes about Big Pharma.
The Economist begins by horrifying us with a deadly aspect of life in third world countries that are hot and wet: “neglected tropical diseases,” or NTDs. These are neglected because the populations that suffer from them are poor and far away, but they affect more than a billion people. Among the scourges, all parasitic, are Buruli ulcer, Chagas disease, guinea-worm disease, leishmaniasis, river blindness, trachoma and yaws. There are 18 pernicious maladies currently listed as NTSs.
In the 1970s, mega-pharmaceutical firm Merck developed the drug ivermectin after tests on animals with parasitic infections. William Campbell, one of the firm’s parasitologists,told company executives that the new drug might be effective against the parasite that caused onchocerciasis, or river blindness, which afflicts populations in in parts of Africa, Latin America, and Yemen. He was given the green light to find out.
The first human trial of ivermectin as treatment for river blindness took place in Senegal in 1981, on patients who had the early stages of the disease—itching, rashes— but no damage to their eyes yet. The results were encouraging, indicating that ivermectin was safe for humans and highly effective at stopping the disease before it blinded its victims. Merck, however, now faced the problem that has impeded cures for all the neglected tropical diseases: those who needed ivermectin were too poor to buy it, and so were the nations where they lived. Big corporations are not charities; they have investors, stockholders and a bottom line. They are not accustomed or programmed to give away their products.
Yet Merck made a corporate decision that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren say is impossible. Starting in 1987, it made an open-ended commitment to distribute as much ivermectin as was needed to eradicate the river blindness worldwide. In the next ten years, it swallowed the cost of 100 million doses. Continue reading