Third World Drug Trials — Pharma’s Ticking Time Bomb

July 15, 2008

Twelve babies died in a trial of a pneumonia vaccine in Argentina, according to TradingMarkets.com. The trial was being conducted by GSK. The incident is a sad one and GSK will have its defense—the 15,000 other children recruited didn’t die, which actually means that the death rate is very low.

More worrying are the allegations that poor families are being “pressured and forced” to have their babies enrolled in the trial.

The report flags a huge issue for all major pharma companies: The prevalence of trials conducted in foreign lands—often in countries where people are poor or badly educated—and the fact that the resulting drugs will be made available in rich countries first.

Pfizer, for instance, has suffered years of embarrassment over its Nigerian trials of Trovan, dating back to 1996.

And I know of one drug company that has gone to Russia in order to test an asthma treatment, ostensibly because Russian patients are less likely to be already taking steroid-based treatments.

The financial advantages for pharma companies are obvious: they don’t have such aggressive lawyers; they can be bought off more cheaply; and if a trial goes horribly wrong the chances of it making headlines in the U.S. and Europe are slim.

However, this is the stuff that Pulitzer prizes and Congressional hearings are made of. It’s a matter of time before some bright spark at the BBC, the NYT or the Journal thinks to him/herself, “Hmmm, I’ll bet there’s some interesting dirt to be dug here.” And they’ll find it.

The only question is whether pharma companies dare bite the bullet and commit to ending drug trials on poor people. They won’t, of course. With pharma stocks battered and CEOs looking to squeeze every drop out of their expenses, the idea of making the R&D budget even fatter isn’t that appealing.

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