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In a revelation which would disgust even the most hardened cynic, one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, Aspen Pharmacare, has been involved in denying life-saving cancer treatments in order to boost profits across the European Union.
Over the course of 2014, Aspen Pharmacare and the Spanish health service were locked in a bitter dispute over the price of cancer medicines. Aspen wished to drive up the price of five treatments by as much as 4,000%. The Spanish health authorities refused point blank to accept this outrageous proposal.
Aspen responded by manufacturing a drug shortage to ensure that their demands were met.
In May 2014, Aspen cut off direct supplies of the drugs from Spain, leaving patients dependent on imported medicines at a far greater cost. Effected patients included children and the elderly.
Even worse, internal emails leaked to The Times revealed that when asked by an employee about what should be done with existing Spanish packs of the medicine, a senior executive at Aspen advised that if the price dispute could not be resolved in Aspen’s favour “the only option will be to donate or destroy this stock.”
What clearer example of capitalism’s inhumanity could there possibly be? Large pharmaceutical corporations would rather destroy life-saving drugs than see their profits compromised.
Aspen’s price rises are part of a calculated continent-wide campaign to drive up the cost of five forms of cancer medicine (melphalan, chlorambucil, mercaptopurine, thioguanine, and busulfan), recently purchased from the British company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).
In England and Wales, for instance, Aspen’s price rises have already led to an increase in the cost of Busulfan, a drug used by leukaemia patients, from £5.20 to £65.22 – an increase of more than 1,100%. In 2013, the price of Chlorambucil was also driven up, from £8.36 to £40.51 a pack.
In Italy, Aspen threatened to cut off supplies of cancer drugs altogether unless the health authorities agreed to a 2,100% price increase within three months. Aspen were the only company holding the license to sell these drugs in Italy.
Although the health service ultimately agreed to these extortionate demands, the Italian competition watchdog (AGCM) claimed that throughout the negotiations Aspen withheld drugs in to order to heap pressure on the health authorities.
Despite being issued with a 5.2million Euro fine by AGCM last year, the new price structure has now come into effect.
The insatiable greed of pharmaceutical corporations reflects a system that is not fit for purpose. Between 2014 and 2015, the NHS in England spent £15.5bn on medicines — a rise of 19.4% since 2010–2011. And in 2015 alone, it is estimated that an additional £262million was lost from the NHS’s budget to cover the price rises of about 50 drugs.
As if that wasn’t enough, the entire private healthcare sector is riddled with allegations of massive and systemic tax avoidance – Richard Branson’s company Virgin Care, to name just one who are said to be intimately involved in shafting the British taxpayer.
Corporate greed is allowed to flourish because the political establishment in Britain, and across much of the EU, is rotten. As always, Tory MPs are in bed with big business. But unfortunately, this is also the case with many of the Blairite MPs who remain within the Labour Party.
But the possibility of a break with this rotten system has been posed by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
Despite a number of significant retreats, Corbyn has made some good ground in recent weeks by promising free school dinners for children and the implementation of a £10 an hour living wage should Labour be elected in 2020 (or sooner).
He also supports the NHS Reinstatement Bill, which pledges to renationalise the health service – a policy proposal which Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth, somewhat perplexingly, refuses to support.
But Corbyn must go further than this. He must demand the nationalisation of large pharmaceutical companies, bringing them under democratic workers’ control and management, to stop the continued financial drain on the NHS’s resources.
Last month’s mammoth demonstration in support of the NHS proved there is a willingness to fight for the future of our health service. And the example of the junior doctors in 2016, as well as the nurses, who are now discussing the possibility of industrial action, demonstrates the combativity of NHS workers.
If successful in our defence of the NHS, it could act as a beacon for workers across the EU and further afield. Sending a message that we will not stand by as big business continues to profit from our suffering.