Big pharma business
Are pharmaceuticals hiding the truth of the two "Berlin Patients" to capitalise on 35 million people living with HIV/AIDS?
When HIV/AIDS first came to public attention in the 1980s, several thousand people were diagnosed as infected with this "cancer". It was perceived as a medical mystery and it was a disease that carried a social stigma. It was prevalent among gay men at the time when the community wasn't accepted (as it is today). People were hesitant to talk about the disease, and funding research or finding a cure for it was low on the list of priorities for any pharmaceutical company or government.
According to Nathalia Holt, that's why a cure for HIV/AIDS came from elsewhere in the medical community. Cured tells the story of the “Berlin Patients” – the first two people to have been functionally cured of HIV/AIDS, one in 1996 and one in 2008. She offers fascinating medical insights into how the HIV/AIDS virus works and how it can be tackled. It's clearly presented in terms and analogies relatively easily understood by the motivated layperson.
Sometimes it reads like a thriller, with backstabbing scientists and vials of blood being couriered around the world. We meet humanised mice that have been genetically modified to have human immune systems so that they can be used in experiments. Then there's also the predominant human interest of this book. It's the story of a few men and women, and how their relationships changed the way HIV/AIDS is treated today.
The most amazing and mystifying part of the story is that even though the Berlin Patients were cured of HIV/AIDS, and meticulous records were kept of their treatment, there has never been an attempt to repeat their treatments on a larger scale. Both men were cured by different means, and while elements of their cure have been replicated, there are many aspects that seem to be wilfully ignored, particularly what seems to be the proven effectiveness of early and aggressive treatment.
The understated but important element of this book is the discussion of the relationship between big pharmaceutical companies (Big Pharma) and medical care. Though it only makes up a fraction of the book’s content, it is important in understanding the present status quo. The main impetus of Holt’s explanation can be summarised in one quote: “If no one can make money, even the best drug will fail.”
As things stand, there are treatments available that help people with HIV/AIDS to live a regular lifespan. However, in some places these treatments are extremely costly, often reaching sums in excess of US$75,000 (RM243,600) a year. Wouldn’t it be better to use what was learned from the Berlin Patients to develop a cure? But better for whom?
The stark reality is that Big Pharma doesn’t exist for the benefit of mankind. Its raison d’etre is to produce profits for its shareholders, something that it succeeds at quite gloriously. If the needs of the general public and Big Pharma intersect, then well and good, but if they don’t... Well, business is business, the bottom line is the bottom line.
If it's more profitable to keep people on expensive medication for the rest of their lives than offering them a cure, then there's little incentive for Big Pharma to invest in finding one. Follow the money. Not only does Big Pharma have little financial incentive to find a cure, they effectively have a financial disincentive. The end result of this is that millions of people living with HIV/AIDS who don’t have access to expensive drugs won’t get access to a cure either.
There is, however, hope on the horizon. Not everyone investing in HIV/AIDS research is motivated by financial gain. There are benevolent donors like Bill and Melissa Gates, who have donated significant sums that through the tireless work of dedicated researchers are translating into hopeful prospective treatments, and moving closer to effective functional cures for HIV/AIDS.
Thanks to these people there are many new clinical trials on-going in the fields of stem cell transplants and gene therapy. Both of these seem to be promising areas of research that are working to modify and create immune systems that the virus can’t attack.
Cured is a must read for any medical practitioner, medical student, anyone with HIV/AIDS, anyone who knows someone who is, or any person who lives on a planet where millions of its people are living with the disease.