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Published 00:24 Sunday 19 March 2006
I CONFESS I wasn’t thrilled back in 1993 when asked to interview a depressed man jailed for threatening his ex-girlfriend with a gun. I sidled up his path thinking that maybe if I knocked quietly enough, I could scurry away and claim he was out. (I don’t want to sound a coward here but let’s just say that in my list of “causes worth dying for”, a single column on page two isn’t one of them.)
Actually, Duncan was the mildest-mannered man you could imagine. He claimed the anti-depressant Prozac altered his personality. I had never heard of Prozac until then, though it would become a highly controversial drug, quoted in a number of violent incidents worldwide.
Drugs can be powerful, mind- altering substances. But we can argue about the effects on the mind. Last week, there was no denying what they can do to the body. In a trial in Harrow, six men were given a new anti-inflammatory drug, TGN1412, with catastrophic results. It was hoped the drug would help arthritis, leukaemia and multiple sclerosis. Within minutes all six men were fighting for their lives and may never recover.
Meeting Duncan was the start of an eye-opening experience. I began writing various drug stories. Once upon a time I actually thought drugs companies existed primarily to help sick people get better. Then I grew up and realised they existed primarily to help rich people get richer. Rich people who, for example, didn’t much care if poor people in Africa got affordable Aids drugs or not. Back then, I thought no ‘reputable’ company would put a single patient’s life at risk for profit. But I discovered cover-ups. Bribes. Misinformation. (If the lawyers aren’t reading this, I’d even say lies.)
One drug company I wrote critically about invited me to a private meeting. Coffee, biscuits and a nice chat. They wanted me to understand their product better. To see that their days were dedicated to helping poor, sick people get better. They smiled less when I asked them to explain why they had covered up drug trial information. They almost snatched the biscuits back before I managed to grab a choccie one.
Obviously – because the lawyers are reading – there is almost nothing we can yet say about last week’s trial and who, if anyone, is to blame. But interestingly, almost a week down the line, there is still no clarity of information. We know the company is German, has been around for only six years, has 15 staff and no marketable product to date. Initially they were refused permission to test in Germany. But what about animal tests? Monkeys and dogs, a solicitor for one of the men claimed she had been told by the company. And one dog died. No dogs, a company spokesman was reported as saying a few days later. Just monkeys and rabbits.
I’ll bet the confusion will last a lot longer, because potentially massive profit is involved. Though not for the volunteers, obviously. We’re told it’s immoral to pay volunteers large sums because then desperate people would volunteer. But what that means is that the drug companies save money and only the truly desperate take part; those who are willing to take drugs for a leukaemia they don’t have for what is, compared with potential profits, an infinitesimal sum.
In the case of TGN1412, volunteers were to be paid £2,330 for three nights and eleven days of their time. “A lot of money,” one volunteer said. A lot of money? Last year, pharmaceutical company Schering made profits of €928m. Merck made €883m. And Jean Pierre Garnier, boss of GlaxoSmithKline, took home £3.8m. Now that’s a lot of money.