The high price of finding cures

By Stephanie Youssef

I was sitting at the Courtyard Café on Monday for lunch when I overheard a conversation going on nearby. A group of students were discussing the topic of medications, complaining how expensive they were and passionately agreeing that medications should be free.

Now I’m not usually one to eavesdrop on others, especially considering it is illegal in Illinois, but there was something about their conversation that bothered me. It wasn’t the topic itself — as the price of prescription medications is definitely something worth discussing — but rather it was the blatant simplicity of their logic. They were tossing around these general assumptions about medications without thinking critically about the issue.

Individuals shouldn’t be quick to condemn the price of prescriptions set by drug companies, as revenue from their sales funds research for medications — a fact many people fail to acknowledge. 

As a molecular and cellular biology major, I have a fair grasp of the amount of research that goes into the production of a drug. It takes years of formulation, preparation and preliminary testing before any medications even come close to being tried on humans, and each of these steps take funding. But these students seemed to be talking about medications like they come out of thin air.

The average drug developed by a major company costs $4 billion dollars to bring to the market — that’s billion with a “B.” And that’s given that the drug is deemed safe and effective; 95 percent of drugs in research and development from companies don’t even pass human testing. http://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2012/02/10/the-truly-staggering-cost-of-inventing-new-drugs/ http://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2013/08/11/how-the-staggering-cost-of-inventing-new-drugs-is-shaping-the-future-of-medicine/

Drug companies are willing to invest this extensive cost because, if a drug is approved, they can recoup their investment through exclusive sales of the medicine. The right to production of the medications themselves is protected for twenty years by patents issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office. http://www.uspto.gov/ 

Thus, pharmaceutical companies that research to develop a drug are allowed exclusive rights to produce a medication for twenty years to get a return profit from it. Then, after twenty years, the patent for the drug expires, other companies are allowed to start making the same medication, and the price of the medication drops for the general public. Patents create a balance between temporary protected profit for the company and later significant benefit to the public.

However, Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders echoed a similar ignorance to the group in the café with recent comments he made in regards to the Food and Drug Administration. He claimed “the greed of the pharmaceutical industry is a public health hazard to the American people” and that “we need a new leader at the FDA who is prepared to stand up to the pharmaceutical companies and work to substantially lower drug prices.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/10/08/bernie-sanders-to-oppose-obamas-nominee-to-lead-the-fda/

The first mistake Sanders made was in regards to the role of the FDA. The FDA’s responsibility lies with the safety and labeling of drugs; the administration has no legal authority or responsibility with regards to cost. Sanders fails to realize that the price of medications is protected by patents.

Additionally, though it may seem unfair that medications come at a price, it is important to realize that without the price, the medication wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Pharmaceutical companies who employ researchers and physicians and spend billions of dollars on research and development of drugs cannot be expected to somehow give medications away for free. The intense funding that goes into research and development of medications is paid off with the sale of the drug later.

In a game of sick patients versus big name pharmaceutical companies, it is easy to paint drug companies as the malevolent ones. But it is also important to understand that drug patents and a guarantee of a return profit help fuel innovation and the drive to find cures to diseases. Having a revenue stream lower than the cost of production is not a sustainable business model by any measure.

With regards to Sanders and those who were in the Courtyard Café, think again before demonizing the high price of drugs. Paying for medications encourages continued funding for the exact research that delivers life-saving treatments.

Stephanie is a senior in LAS.

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