Vienna originated as a Roman military camp and evolved into a settlement known as Vindobona, an important trading site in the 11th century. After becoming capital of the Babenberg dynasty and subsequently the governing hub for the Habsburgs, its European cultural influence expanded throughout the 19th century, first as capital of Austria’s empire (1804) and later Austria-Hungary. One of the continent’s biggest cities in 1908, Vienna was an epicenter for advancements in science, art, medicine (most notably Freudian psychology), film-making and fashion. As a result of these advances, and largely enabling them, immigration into Vienna surged, causing diversity to flourish. German-speaking Viennese saw this as a threat, and their xenophobic backlash, fueled by nationalism and nostalgia for the past, helped destabilize the continent, plunging it into World War I. By the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed (June 28, 1919) the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its cosmopolitan ascendancy were things of the past.
Nationalism perverts patriotism by supporting one’s own country’s interests to the detriment and complete exclusion of other nations’ needs. So too, blind insistence that health, economic and other systems are peerless and needn’t be reformed, when evidence to the contrary is compelling, spells disaster. That kind of “exceptionalism” only perpetuates problems by refusing to acknowledge them. Living in a predominantly capitalistic society, we’re already conditioned by advertisers to be “hosed” at checkout counters and victimized by commercial establishments. As I‘ve written before, that’s the very definition of “profit.” Not only is corporate greed allowed to extract every penny and stitch of capital from us consumers, but mere objection to such peonage, as well as complicit kleptocratic congressmen, is branded pinko. Medical price gouging is thusly rampant, single-payer healthcare has yet to be achieved, and Medicare, which should be universal, hasn’t been permitted to negotiate prices for medicines based on global markets.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) spearheads development of many important, indeed vital pharmaceutical products upon which tens of millions of Americans depend for survival. That research and development is financially supported by us, the nation’s taxpayers. Yet, private drug companies, particularly the big ones, make billions off publicly funded R&D at NIH and elsewhere, charging the highest prices on the globe for products to which manufacturing rights are granted without their intellectual investment. To evade accountability, Big Pharma simply buys off politicians in both major parties. Consequently, as Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote in an opinion piece late January, millions of U.S. citizens are making unacceptable choices between food and other necessities and the medicines they need to keep themselves and loved ones alive. Statistically, about one in four American adults can’t afford their prescription medications. When the same insulin available here costs one tenth as much in Canada, Big Pharma is clearly exploiting U.S. citizens at risk.
Over the past quarter century, drug makers have spent an estimated $8.5 billion on lobbying and nearly $750 million in campaign contributions, almost exclusively to Republicans and Democrats. Additionally, many former congressmen and other legislators comprise the 1,700 lobbyists hired to influence policy last year alone. That’s 3 pharmaceutical industry advocates for every member of Congress. It’s no wonder that, in 2021, Pfizer increased its profit margins 140% to $22 billion. In fact, last year, the 5 largest U.S. pharmaceutical producers pocketed a cool $80 billion in profits, a 104% increase over 2021. Compensation for CEOs of the twelve most profitable drug manufacturers ran over $1 billion. More unconscionable still, the dozen or so largest drug-making companies spent $747 billion to buy back their own stock and dole out huge dividends to investors and CEOs, money that could have been directed to making life-sustaining drugs more affordable. That’s $87 billion more than what they invested in research and development.
Was corporate greed at least suspended during the height of the pandemic? Of course not, Moderna, given $1.7 billion from taxpayers to develop a COVID vaccine and additional windfalls for distribution, made $19 billion in profits the last two years. During the process, according the Sen. Sanders, Moderna’s CEO (Stéphane Bancel) became a billionaire and contractually promised a $926 million “golden parachute” upon leaving the company. Meanwhile, Moderna plans to increase the price of its COVID serum by fourfold to $130 when it hits commercial markets. The actual cost of the serum per shot: $2.85. Similarly, the hepatitis C drug Sovaldi, produced by Gilead, was discovered and developed by Veterans Administration scientists. Costing $1 to manufacture, it can be purchased in India for $4. In the United States, $1,000 is the going price.
Despite being invented by federally-supported UCLA scientists, the prostate cancer drug Xtandi is one of the big-ticket medicines produced by Japanese drug-maker Astellas. A corporation which made billions of dollars in profits in 2001, Astellas recently raised the price of Xtandi by 75% in the United States to almost $190,000. In Canada, the asking price for Xtandi is 1/6 that cost. Humalog is an insulin product manufactured by Eli Lilly, which reported $5.6 billion in profits in 2021 and spiked its asking price for Humalog by 1200% since 1996. At $275, the price of Humalog in the United States is 10 times what Canadian diabetics pay for the medicine. Sen. Sanders concludes over 1 million Americans with diabetes ration insulin because of those elevated costs. Humalog only costs $8 to produce. Meanwhile, Eli Lilly’s CEO made approximately $50 million in bonuses and other compensations.
If major party members of Congress had the backbone and integrity to say “No” to an innately greedy pharmaceutical industry, prescription drug prices in America could be reduced by an estimated 50%. Americans need not pay disproportionately higher costs for medicine than what the same drugs cost in the EU, Canada, Australia and Japan. As Bernie Sanders explained to Fox News in his op-ed, a vial of insulin should cost $11 in the U.S. as it does in Germany, not $99. The autoimmune med Enbrel should be priced at $300 as it is in Canada, not $1,762, and Americans should pay $7,500 annually for the HIV treatment Biktarvy, as do the French, not $45,540.
Greed isn’t the sole propriety of the pharmaceutical companies, of course. Last year, Exxon Mobil made $56 billion in profits, Shell-Motiva $42 billion and Chevron $35 billion, unnecessarily driving up costs at the pump. Vehicle-sellers and grocery providers seized opportunities to follow suit. Capitalism, after all, has yet to develop a conscience or show compunction for mistreating poor and middle classes. But pharmaceutical companies rival the worst offenders. As bleak as that is, though, I share some sidebar encouragement. Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva met with Joe Biden to collaborate on fighting climate change and protecting democracy. Both are the oldest presidents elected to their respective countries and are pro-union. “Lula,” who immediately restarted the Amazon Fund after his inauguration, allowing other countries to donate money to combat Amazon deforestation, also met with Bernie Sanders, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and AFL-CIO labor leaders. If progressives can collaborate internationally to limit global warming and preserve democracy, they can work together for affordable, globally-consistent drug prices.
From ecological and moral perspectives, we all know hunting in the 21st century is not only an anachronism without scruples but a social evil, one licensed to a tiny, fringe percentage of the population for revenue. Last week, actress and animal rights activist Dame Joanna Lumley condemned British trophy hunters as “lowest of the low” in support of legislation banning import of body parts of endangered species shot under the craven guise of “sport.” With fox hunting and other grim spectacles publicly denounced at home, wealthy Brits, it seems, still globetrot to “canned” hunting holidays for exotic animal parts to hang over fireplaces. In the last 40 years, they’ve brought 5,000 heads, elephant feet, skins and other pieces of endangered animals back to the UK as “trophies,” acquiring most of those body parts by killing lions, tigers, leopards and other nonhuman animals bred in cages, hand-reared and bottle-fed to be slaughtered. Sally’s Law, the bill brought before Parliament by Conservative MP Henry Smith to stop such imports, is supported by a huge majority of UK citizens recently polled, including Dames Joanna Lumley and Judi Dench, Ricky Gervais, renown explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and The Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting set up in 2018. Sally’s Law is named after a tiger cub saved after being “bred for the bullet.” Given that pharmaceutical companies see America’s sick and infirm as powerless to resist paying their price hikes, the high cost of medicines sold in America may not be as cruel and cowardly as hunting, but it’s every bit as vile.
Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.