The pharmaceutical industry is an easy target-too easy sometimes. Take a television camera crew to any African hospital and you will find people dying from diseases-Aids, chest infections, malaria, tuberculosis, meningitis-that are entirely treatable. Thousands of deaths stack up in the world's poorest countries because people are denied access to essential medicines.
NGOs, such as M?decins Sans Fronti?res and Oxfam, have made a persuasive case to governments and the public that big pharma's paramount concern is to protect its intellectual property at the expense of the lives of the poor. Pharmaceutical companies reply that they cannot be a national health service to the world. As businesses, they owe legal responsibilities to their shareholders. The job of a drug company is to design, market, and sell new medicines, while protecting its intellectual property as far as it reasonably can. Western food companies, they point out, are not vilified when starvation strikes Ethiopia.
If big pharma does sometimes seem to be attributed with more than its share of responsibility for the world's medical troubles, there are other issues where it escapes too lightly. Medicines, for example, kill as well as cure. In fact, the pharmaceutical industry is one of the biggest killers in the industrialised world. And it is officially licensed to be so. This seems an extraordinary claim. What is the evidence for it?