It is no secret that the pill profit party is over for drug companies. Best-selling pills like Lipitor, Seroquel, Zyprexa, Singular, Concerta, Cymbalta and Abilify have gone off patent and Wall Street is moving on to industries that offer better returns.
To combat investor disenchantment, drug companies are rolling out expensive drugs that not only raise health care costs and loot taxpayer-funded health care programs but don’t even work that well.
Exhibit A, of course, are the hepatitis C drugs that weigh in at $1,000 a pill—$84,000 for a course of treatment—sacking the budgets of insurance companies and state Medicaid programs. The drugs are marketed with scare campaigns that tell you, whoever you are, you may be silently harboring Hep C. The ads are designed to sound like they are from the CDC but are actually from Pharma.
Hep C drugs were rolled out $o fa$t, Pharma did not realize that patients with pre-existing, dormant hepatitis B infections could experience reactivation of the infections on the drugs and even die. Sorry about that.
Exhibit B is a new drug that’s better than statins like Lipitor (which was the best selling drug in the world) hyped this week in news media. For a mere $200,000 a year, the Novartis drug canakinumab, “can reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and possibly lung cancer,” extolled The New York Times in a free ad for Novartis this week. Guess who paid for the study cited in the article? Novartis.
Patients loved statins because they could ignore diet and exercise advice and still, apparently, reduce heart attack risks; their body would “forgive” the bacon cheeseburger.
They will no doubt love canakinumab for the same reasons but need to read the fine print first. Like the best-selling drug Humira, canakinumab is a human monoclonal antibody that compromises the human immune system and puts patients at risks for fatal infections. In fact, admits the New York Times article, “deaths from infection in the [canakinumab] study appeared to match lives saved by the drug, so there was no difference in overall mortality between the groups that got the drug and the placebo.”
This is a drug breakthrough? This merits headlines?
Monoclonal antibodies are cash cows to Pharma but far from safe. Patients treated with Humira, “are at increased risk for developing serious infections that may lead to hospitalization or death,” according to the drug’s warnings. These include “invasive fungal infections, including histoplasmosis, coccidioidomycosi,” and “bacterial, viral and other infections due to opportunistic pathogens, including Legionella and Listeria.” Nice.
In 2008, the FDA announced that 45 people died from such fungal diseases while taking Humira, Enbrel, Remicade and Cimzia. The same year, the FDA investigated Humira for 30 reports of childhood cancer and its links to lymphoma, leukemia and melanoma in children.
Xolair, another monoclonal antibody drug from Novartis, marketed for asthma, was linked to a higher risk of heart attack, mini-stroke, chest pain and blood clots in the lungs and veins, among other problems, according to the FDA. Seventy-seven people who took Xolair, which carries a warning for severe allergic reactions, had life-threatening responses to the drug in just a year and a half, according to FDA reports. Like this week’s canakinumab study, scientific papers touting Xolair’s benefits were largely funded by Novartis.
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.