We love big pharm

The big pharmaceutical companies are amazing. They run right at the limits of technology and take huge financial risks which benefit us all immensely, yet they are poorly understood. One of the main reasons that life expectancy has shot up in recent decades is because of these companies, their products improve the life quality of just about everyone on earth.

The process for creating a new drug is when researchers identify a potentially useful molecule. This is then patented and research, development and testing commence. The patent only lasts 20 years after which anybody can and does copy it in what is known as the generic market.

From the initial identification of the molecule to it coming to market takes 10 to 11 years (small biotech companies can sometimes get this down to 7 to 8 years). During the development process 9,999 out of 10,000 candidate molecules will fail in some way. The one that succeeds and makes it to market will cost $1.3 to $1.8 billion in order to make that journey.

If we take the average cost of  getting to market as $1.5 billion and the average sales life before the patent runs out as being 10 years you can see that a new drug has to make a profit of $150 million a year just to break even. So it is hardly surprising that 80% of new drugs fail to make a profit in their patent lifetime.

Against this background the big pharmaceutical industry worldwide is retrenching. They are putting far fewer candidate molecules down the development pipeline. And we are all poorer for this as we will not get new drugs that would have raised the quality of our lives. These are the problems:

  • Every drug has side effects, aspirin can cause gastric bleeding for instance. The parasitic, ambulance chasing solicitors have latched on to this and run a constant pitched battle of legal actions against pharmaceutical companies. This costs a fortune and makes it significantly more difficult to run a business. These solicitors cost us new cures for diseases.
  • Money saving. Many countries have state health services that are highly inefficient and which penny pinch on drugs to make up for their mismanagement elsewhere. In Britain inept hospital management overspends £500 million a year just on basic supplies. Whilst doctors commonly prescribe generic drugs that are two or three generations old when there are more modern drugs available that do a far better job.
  • Ten years of patent protection before the market is swamped by generic copies is just not enough for the big pharms to earn enough to pay for their huge investments. Book authors and pop artists get copyright protection for the author’s life plus 50 to 70 years.

Against this background it is hardly surprising that Pfizer are closing their research facility at Sandwich in Kent with the loss of 2,500 jobs. This reflects a worldwide trend and its consequence is fewer new and better drugs to cure us of our ailments. We lose out in quality of life.

So what needs doing? Well, as in so many areas the activity of solicitors needs to be controlled as currently they often do far more harm than good, we need a better balance. The duration of patents needs to be looked at. And one very simple measure would be to give doctors freedom to prescribe. So they could offer the standard NHS, NICE approved drug, as normal. But then tell the patient that there is a state of the art drug available under private prescription. This has to be better because it is immoral that people are currently not even offered the option of the best drug for their condition.

All this matters a lot just now as the technology is emerging to create cures based on genetics. These offer hope for previously incurable diseases and also the potential to be a step change more effective than traditional chemical drugs. But the costs involved are huge, as is the risk. If pharmaceutical companies cannot run a viable business model then the drugs just won’t happen.


  1. “In Britain inept hospital management overspends £500 million a year just on basic supplies. Whilst doctors commonly prescribe generic drugs that are two or three generations old when there are more modern drugs available that do a far better job.”

    once again you cherry pic your arguments while either ignoring or being oblivious of the other side of the coin.

    the fact is, these companies often introduce drugs that are functionally no better than what was available before, but solely to beat the expiration of patents.

    for instance, while by now GPs should be able to prescribe a generic drug based on Gaviscon, the company behind it withdrew it before its patent expired and replaced it with Gaviscon Plus. which is just the same thing but more concentrated and offering no real benefits to Gaviscon. but that’s what GPs now have to prescribe – so in fact the NHS is being forced to overspend, because of such chicanery.

    yes, there are new fantastic drugs that would provide great benefits to those who need them, and if only the NHS wasn’t compelled to spend more than should be necessary on the staples, then they would have more funds available to buy them.

    as for immorality, these companies have much to learn themselves, with their life-is-cheap, let’s-use-them-as-guinea-pigs activities in the third-world.


  2. @JBA
    As usual you are wrong. There are plenty of Gaviscon generics available: Gelusil, Maalox, Mylanta, Wingel.
    The system for the NHS prescription channel failed with the generic name assignation. Something that Gaviscon’s manufacturers exploited.
    But the fundamental problem, as usual, was the inane working of the NHS.


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