Big Pharma Decides Who Lives and Who Dies


It never ceases to amaze, the onslaught of far flung corporate conglomerates that shape our lives. Some of those influences are as obvious and longstanding as the food we eat, the cars we drive or the electronic devices that for better or worse consume us.

There’s Big Agriculture with its stranglehold on food availability, purity and prices; Big Energy and its mission to engineer an oligarchy worthy of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil; and Big Technology as it continues to commandeer whole market shares of military and civilian investments.

But equal to any of these macro-economics entities is the behemoth power wielder known as Big Pharma – a focused handful of global, uber-capitalist industries who are playing God with poor folks the world over ...

The pharmaceutical industry has long been a global poster child for catering to the privileged to the neglect of ill poor folks, especially those in developing nations – an implicit guiding strategy rarely exposed to the harsh light of public/ governmental scrutiny.

For obvious financial and political reasons, the CEOs that head up Big Pharma are a disciplined if sometimes ethically-challenged lot: They know that from where the boards and shareholders sit, nothing good happens once their mega-mogul executives wander off-message in the middle of an interview.

But wander they sometimes do. Just ask Bayer CEO Marijin Dekker.

Responding to an inquiry about why Bayer is opposed to India’s efforts to lower the costs of a desperately needed compound, Dekker made a proprietary misstep: “We did not develop this drug for Indians. We developed it for Western patients who can afford it.”

This suddenly not-so-secret secret was savaged by a host of online bloggers, including Techdirt contributor Glyn Moody: “That’s a refreshingly honest admission that rather than wanting to save lives around the world, what Bayer is interested in is maximizing its profits by selling expensive drugs to “western patients who can afford it,” and that those who can’t pay can just, well, drop dead – which, of course, is precisely what many of them will do without Bayer’s drugs.”

Morally bankrupt as Bayer’s position may be, competitors Pfizer and AstraZeneca fare equally dismally when it comes to balancing profit margins and saving lives; they too have been shedding markets and medications on the basis of financial expedience, not humanitarian need.

This near industry-wide lapse in compassion is most obvious when comparing Big Pharma’s historical commitment to research and development (R&D) of new drugs.

In a March 1, 2014 Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres online commentary, executive staff member Manica Balasegaram makes plain the reasons large pharmaceuticals are closing shop in some of the poorest regions of the world:

“The problem is simply this: pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Bayer lack the incentives to develop drugs like antibiotics that are only taken for a short period of time, or against diseases that primarily affect the poor. With an obligation to shareholders, pharmaceutical companies develop those drugs that will best enable them to achieve high sales in targeted lucrative markets. Typically, these drugs are for diseases that affect mostly people in wealthy countries who can afford—for the most part—to pay the high prices that come with a R&D system which relies on patent monopolies to recoup costs.”

It was inevitable the global shift in wealth would register with Big Pharma’s green-shade ethos. Transfer enough resources from rich to poor, and sooner or later poor folks have nothing worth pursuing.

But by following the money, large pharmaceuticals are in effect deciding who gets better and who stays sick. And in some cases, who lives and who dies.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister living in Jackson, Ohio. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2015

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