AIDS/AZT

Editorials are hailing the announcement by government health researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that the drug, AZT, can delay the advance of AIDS in infected persons who have no symptoms. But these same editorials are bewailing the prices for a year’s AZT treatment at $8,000 or more per patient. The new findings about AZT will greatly enlarge the market for the drug and therefore the cumulative cost to patients, their insurers and Medicaid programs.

To the question of who should pay for AZT treatments of uninsured patients, the likely answer will be, of course, the taxpayers through expanded eligibility standards under Medicare and Medicaid. But that is not the first questions which should be asked. What should be questioned loud and clear is why the price of AZT is so high. After all, the taxpayers funded the clinical trials and other research that made a super-profitable market for the private pharmaceutical company, Burroughs-Wellcome, which was permitted by NIH to take out a patent monopoly on this medicine.

NIH compounded the giveaway by not requiring the drug company to agree to price controls on AZT in return for the staggering profits protected by a patent monopoly.

The taxpayers pay twice when impoverished AIDS patients have Medicaid pay for the AZT treatments. And now, after the taxpayer-funded latest NIH clinical trials greatly expanding the AZT market, the taxpayers will pay again for the expanded government insurance payments for this gouging.

Earlier this month, when the latest NIH findings on AZT were on the news, the stock of Burroughs-Wellcome went up 33% on the London stock exchange. The early estimated sales of AZT by the company between 1987 and 1992 were $2.5 billion; now the estimates are much larger.

What is to be made of this situation? First it is clear that the media is not sufficiently aware of the give-aways from NIH to the pharmaceutical companies. These companies have been placing ads in newspapers and magazines recently trying to justify their drug prices by claiming to spend so much on research. They rarely mention that a lion’s share of the new therapeutic drug discoveries come to them from Uncle Sugar at the NIH complex in Bethesda, Maryland.

Much of the research drug companies conduct is for therapeutic purposes already met by other drugs on the markets. They contribute nothing new to medical care except to proliferate different brand names and provide more business to advertising agencies.

Some idea of how much the drug companies are overcharging has come from Canada. Until last year, when Canadian law was changed, under drug industry pressure, to permit longer drug patent monopolies, the same pharmaceuticals produced by the same companies marketing in both countries were cheaper in Canada by a third or a half or more than their exact counterparts sold in our country. That is because Canada did not allow a long patent monopoly and required licensing of the pharmaceuticals to other companies.

Soon, all the complaints streaming into Congress and to consumer groups about the skyrocketing prices for medical drugs should move Washington to some action. Cong. Henry Waxman (D-CA) talks about Congressional hearings on high drug prices, but much more needs to be done by health insurance companies and large group buyers of pharmaceuticals such as the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP).

Another way to reduce the overall cost of drugs is for doctors and patients to be more aware of which drugs are being prescribed that are unnecessary, dangerous or prescribed at too high a dosage for too long a period. Very usable information for patients is contained in Dr. Sidney Wolfe’s handy reference book titled Worse Pills, Best Pills, (Pantheon Pub.) available in bookstores.

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