Apr. 14th, 2009

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In areas like alternative medicine and the anti-vaccine movement, one argument that is frequently brought up is that the status quo looks the way it does because Big Pharma is suppressing the argumentor’s favoured research results—they suppress evidence that vaccines cause health problems because they are greedy and want to make money from vaccines even if harmful; they suppress evidence that homeopathy works because they are greedy and do not want to lose the drug market to homeopaths…

First, let me state quite baldly that I firmly believe that the large pharmaceutical companies fall pretty squarely in the Big Evil Corporation category and frequently engage in questionable or reprehensible behaviour. Certainly many of their executives are as motivated by greed, and as ruthless, as executives of other Big Evil Corporations, like oil companies. I do not dismiss out of hand claims that Big Pharma are doing questionable things. But obviously, that doesn’t mean that they are guilty of all the evils of which they are accused, and we have to look at the actual claims, and corroborating evidence, in order to figure out what’s what.

Frankly, I find the vaccine claim outright puzzling. I have taken vaccines for a number of different things. Every vaccine shot I have taken, even ones I had to pay for entirely out of my own pocket, have cost less than or around $50. Assuming that a vaccine requires one booster shot, that represent a sales potential of $100 for my entire lifetime, a statistical 80 years or so. That’s not a lot of profit.

On the other hand, if vaccines are not available for a disease, the disease has to be cured and controlled. Consider polio, a disease eradicated by vaccines:

There is no cure for polio. The focus of modern treatment has been on providing relief of symptoms, speeding recovery and preventing complications. Supportive measures include antibiotics to prevent infections in weakened muscles, analgesics for pain, moderate exercise and a nutritious diet. Treatment of polio often requires long-term rehabilitation, including physical therapy, braces, corrective shoes and, in some cases, orthopedic surgery.

Portable ventilators may be required to support breathing. Historically, a noninvasive negative-pressure ventilator, more commonly called an iron lung, was used to artificially maintain respiration during an acute polio infection until a person could breathe independently (generally about one to two weeks). Today many polio survivors with permanent respiratory paralysis use modern jacket-type negative-pressure ventilators that are worn over the chest and abdomen.

Suppose that some utterly ruthless Big Pharma executive sits down and does the math on this. We can either sell $100 worth of vaccines to quite a lot of people, but once only per patient lifetime…or, if we make no vaccine available (or allow it to be banned due to spurious health concerns) we can sell antibiotics, analgesics, braces, corrective shoes, surgical equipment, iron lungs…

I don’t claim to be an expert on the market, but I postulate that vaccines just aren’t big money makers compared to after-the-fact treatments, and obviously vaccines compete with curative and palliative drugs. As someone said in agreement with my opinion,

I had a friend working as an assistant on big pharm sponsored vaccine research project back in the early 90s. The pharm company eventually pulled funding for the research, and the researchers suspected that the motivation was that producing drugs to treat the illness in question was a better moneymaker than funding relatively expensive research to develop a vaccine. The vaccine would have essentially killed a bunch of the company's product lines.

Let me make this very explicit: This quote is pure anecdote and is not intended to be used as evidence, but presented as an example of why my argument is plausible. Nor do I have the market research and relative cost/profit analyses for vaccines versus conventional drugs. However, my point is that in order for the “Big Pharma” conspiracy theory to hold any water at all, this argument has to be addressed. In short, conspiracy theorists who view vaccines as poisoning for profit must believe that

  1. Big Pharma executives are so ruthless and greedy that they are willing to poison millions of children (including their own) for money;
  2. They do this, and get away with it with no sign of internal whistle-blowers (the critics are always outside critics, with no sign of leaked memos as is usually the case in attempts at corporate cover-ups); and
  3. Vaccine production is so profitable that even after R&D costs, it earns the company more money than selling curative and palliative treatments.
…And if they wish to be believed, they have to substantiate that.

Similar claims are often raised by supporters of “alternative” medical treatments like homeopathy and naturopathy. It’s not quite so sinister—they tend to accuse Big Pharma not of mass poisoning campaigns, but merely suppressing their own (surely superior) treatments for profit.

Once again, however, these economic accusations are very fast and loose and vague. Even if homeopathic remedies worked, would it really profit Big Pharma to suppress it? I would rather imagine that they would attempt to take over that market and drive the smaller players out. Simply by pushing for increased regulation (requiring similar standards of evidence of effectiveness and safety for “alternative” drugs as for conventional ones), they would kill a lot of companies that lack the R&D resources to run the necessary studies. (Why don’t they do it already? Well, since these treatments don’t work, the studies would never pass muster.)

Do I know that this is the way the finances would work out? Absolutely not! But the careful evasion of even raising the question makes me think that the alt-med advocates would rather no one think it through—it’s much easier, after all, to go with a knee-jerk Big corporate evil! reaction. There’s no reason to take the greed accusation seriously unless it can be shown to be logically coherent.

This argument has a second irony, of course: Alternative medicine is a huge industry. Billions upon billions of dollars are spent on “alternative” treatments every year—without all the R&D costs that real pharmaceutical companies have to battle with; freed of the expenses and vast time commitments of running large-scale, double-blind medical trials to show that the drugs work. Tu quoque is a logical fallacy, but when the argument amounts largely to character assault (Big Pharma is greedy and evil), it may be worth keeping in mind that “alternative medicine” is no more innocent of the character flaw at hand.


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Petter Häggholm

April 2016

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