Gerald Posner is an attorney, author, and award-winning investigative journalist. His latest book is Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America. The Christian Science Monitor calls it “a staggering indictment of pharmaceutical companies.” The New York Times says it is “a withering and encyclopedic indictment of a drug industry that often seems to prioritize profits over patients.”
P4AD founder David Mitchell had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Posner recently. Here are some key excerpts from that interview lightly edited for length and clarity.
David Mitchell: Right now, the big drug companies are telling us that they’re pulling out all the stops to find treatments and cures for COVID-19 and that we should trust them to price them fairly. Based on the history that you explored in your book, should we accept that promise at face value?
Gerald Posner: Absolutely not. The companies that exist today go back for decades. Time and time again, when they have said, trust me, it’s turned out not to be correct. When they’ve had an opportunity to push for extra profits, usually at a time of public health crises, it happens consistently. So their DNA, David, is to make sure they can charge the top dollar, and we are the only country in the world that allows them unfettered pricing power, much to our discredit, I believe.
DM: Can you draw any comparisons between COVID-19 and the development of the polio vaccine?
GP: Absolutely. There are two things that I think are important here. When you have a major illness that is being tackled, public money rushes into the system, into the drug companies, to develop these drugs. It happened with polio, it’s happening today. Nineteenbillion is being flooded into all of the companies to come with treatments or vaccines on COVID. They will use that public money to come up with items that are patented. The one big difference is that when the polio vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk, he was asked by Edward R. Murrow, the famous newsman on CBS, “who owns the patent for your discovery of this particular immunization, the company or you?” He said, “No one. Could you patent the sun?”
DM: Can you take a minute to talk about penicillin? You referenced it a moment ago. Who was it that invested the money to develop penicillin during WWII?
GP: It was the United States government. The taxpayer invested that money. It was the number two priority program as a secret wartime program behind the Manhattan project and the atomic bomb. Many people may not know that. The government took these 12 to 14 pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and Merck and others, and it built the plants for them that were required for fermentation in the big tanks and gave them money to expand their infrastructure.
DM: Can you tell me what you think makes the U.S. system of drug development and pricing different from the rest of the world?
GP: I’m a lawyer in another life, so I always believe there are two sides to every argument. I very seldom say something is absolute quantitatively or qualitatively worse or better, but in this case, I can say our system is worse, at least in terms of pricing, what we as patients pay. That is because we are one of two countries in the world, the other being New Zealand, that allows direct consumer advertising. But we’re the only country in the world that allows drug companies the unleashed power to set whatever price they want. In every other country, whether you’re in the UK with the National Health Service, or in France, or in Germany, or dealing with Eastern Europe, you have to negotiate with either a government body or a group of regularies sometimes composed of doctors and scientists. Sometimes it’s the government buying the drugs directly because they’re distributing it as national health, and they have to negotiate a price that they consider a fair price.
Patients For Affordable Drugs has been working to elevate investment by taxpayers into the research and development of COVID-19 medications and vaccines. You can read our piece tracking taxpayer funding flowing to drug companies for these drugs here. Read about how Big Pharma only became interested in investing in vaccine development after it realized it could reap large profits here. We explained why Johnson & Johnson’s claims of selling a not-for-profit COVID-19 vaccine are more than a little misleading. Most recently, we looked into the taxpayer money being funneled into work on Moderna’s potential vaccine.