Monday, January 07, 2008

Another Drug-Company Outrage

To a great extent presidential debates are dog-and-pony shows, full of canned, well-rehearsed lines. But sometimes you watch them, for example the Saturday ABC GOP and Democratic debates in New Hampshire, and you learn some things. I learned, for example, that Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are absolutely miserable debaters. Not that there is anything wrong with that; the British seem to value witty repartee in their politicians, but it’s not obvious to me that it makes for a good president.

I also learned that all the Democratic candidates have adopted this peculiar tic of referring to the country just west of India as POK-iss-tawn, rather than the way Americans have traditionally pronounced it, PACK-iss-tan. It is true that the former is how Pakistanis themselves say it, but English people pronounce “Manchester” differently than we do, and there is no rush to alter how we say that. This is of course silly political correctness, a phenomenon I have written about before in exactly this context.

Finally, I learned something substantial amidst all the one-liners and sound bites – a real moment of spontaneity that told me something about two of the candidates. It was between Gov. Romney and Sen. McCain:

MCCAIN: It's because of the power of the pharmaceutical companies. We should have pharmaceutical companies competing to take care of our Medicare and Medicaid patients.

ROMNEY: OK, don't leave me. Don't send the pharmaceutical companies into the big bad guys.

MCCAIN: Well, they are.

ROMNEY: No, actually they're trying to create products to make us well and make us better, and they're doing the work of the free market.

And are there excesses? I'm sure there are, and we should go after excesses. But they're an important industry to this country.

This is a purely instinctive response, in which two candidates were forced off-message by the flow of the debate. And it was quite revealing. To Gov. Romney, drug companies are fundamentally out there to create value for consumers; they make medicines that improve people’s lives. To Sen. McCain, they are fundamentally chiselers, operating at the forbearance of the almighty state, and in business mostly to rip the government off. (My book critically investigates, in Chapter 5, this whole notion of “corporate power.”) My admiration for Gov. Romney, and contempt for Sen. McCain, rose markedly at this moment.

Meanwhile, out in the positive-sum world of the market and away from the zero-sum, conflict-ridden world of politics, here is what an actual drug company is doing, according to the BBC:

A single jab that could give lifelong protection against all types of flu has produced promising results in human trials.

The vaccine, made by Acambis, should protect against all strains of influenza A - the cause of pandemics.

Currently, winter flu jabs have to be regularly redesigned because the flu virus keeps changing.

The new vaccine would overcome this and could be stockpiled in advance of a bird flu outbreak, say experts.

Each year winter flu kills around 4,000 people in the UK.

Globally, between 500,000 and one million people die each year from influenza.

But a pandemic of the human form of bird flu, which experts believe is inevitable, could kill as many as 50m people worldwide.

The usual disclaimers about a long distance between initial human trials and actual widespread use apply; influenza is still a deadly threat, and has not been turned into polio yet. Like every pressure group, drug companies attempt to manipulate power to their own ends (by prohibiting Americans from exposing the free-riding of the Canadian health system by being allowed to buy drug cheaper there, for example). But while people like John McCain are obsessed about corporate “power,” people who work in actual corporations are, as usual, trying to solve real problems.



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