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Health vs. wealth — The power of big pharma to put a price on your life

Writing: Reuben Fox McClure

Illustration: Paola Valentina

Do you have a right to your own health? Only as far as your wallet is deep. Pharmaceutical corporations hold total power over how much you should pay for wellness — or even your life. The latest controversy over the commodification of human health indicts the US company Vertex over their drug Orkandi. Orkandi is a new pharmaceutical that can treat not only the symptoms of, but also the causes of cystic fibrosis, a gene fault that causes a build up of mucus in the lungs, preventing normal breathing, increasing susceptibility to infections and decreasing life expectancy. Orkandi can improve both the quality and length of the life of someone with cystic fibrosis.

Despite the potentially life-changing benefits of the drug, UK patients cannot access Orkandi: NHS England says that it simply cannot afford it. The NHS operates the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), a department that evaluates the cost-efficacy of all new drugs released to the pharmaceutical market for viability of distribution to NHS patients. Vertex is offering the NHS Orkandi, a drug that treats not cures, at £105,000 per patient per year, a sum which NICE has deemed financially unfeasible. As a consequence, thousands of Brits with cystic fibrosis are forced to endure their condition without the best possible relief. Despite global criticism, Vertex refuses to negotiate on the price of Orkandi, citing a bottom-line mentality behind the drug’s extortionate price tag. As Orkandi was privately developed by Vertex, the drug is still under patent, making it no different from any other commercial product, despite its life-changing nature. Any attempt to create a generic, affordable version of Orkandi is liable to lawsuit. In the US, where Orkandi costs $270,000 per patient per year and is not covered by most life insurances, patients have to choose between health and wealth.

Vertex do offer the drug to a handful of UK patients, but only on ‘compassionate grounds’ when the patient is extremely unwell, usually when death is imminent. This is in order to minimise public relations outcry. Suffers of cystic fibrosis are thus cast in a psychological liminality between their health preventing their access to Orkandi, and reaching a point of illness where they are deemed worthy of treatment. It’s hard to overstate the injustice of such unkempt greed. The development of Orkandi was partially funded by charitable means, primarily through parents of people with cystic fibrosis who hoped for a better quality of life for their children. One particular case is that of Laura Moser, who estimates her parents contributed $750,000 towards the development of Orkandi. Now that it is on the market, Laura cannot afford the drug that her own parents helped develop. (../) ( / Orkandi is not the first case, nor will it be the last, where pharmaceutical companies vampirically exploit extreme illness within the capitalist model. Last year, after acquiring Daraprim, a 62-year-old treatment for parasitic infections primarily used by HIV patients, the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals Martin Shkreli was dubbed the world’s ‘most hated man’ for raising the treatment’s price from $13.50 to $750 a pill.

Shkreli asserted that the drug was merely being sold at it’s true market value, and that the profits from Daraprim sales would be used to fund further pharmaceutical research. Regardless, Shkreli’s price-hike has hurt the many people who need the life-saving drug. The problem lies in the blanket treatment of pharmaceuticals as products like any other, rather than objects of the common good. Pharmaceutical corporations such as Vertex and Turing would rather let people die than adjust their profit margins — whilst their CEOs take in salaries in the tens of millions of dollars. We all have a right to life; yet it seems that some have the right to choose the price of that right.

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