Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pathfinders: Down on the Pharma (2012)

The Pathfinders Column from the October 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
The flu season is upon us again and readers will be delighted to hear that swine flu has not been idle. Tests have been taking place after a woman died last month from swine flu contracted at a country fair in Ohio, and three more cases were reported from Minnesota. The flu strain, H1N2, is derived from the 2009 H1N1 virus, is air-borne and carries the pandemic M gene. All victims had prolonged contact with pigs, however a different strain, H3N2, has caused 296 infections across 10 US states since July this year (Link). The message at present is that people at high risk should stay away from pigs, state fairs or Korea, where the H1N2 strain is said to be a ‘triple reassortant’ virus in that it is a mix of avian, swine and human flu (Link).
Scientists are being cautious, obviously. Nobody is going to cry wolf this time, after they got the blame for the huge panic in 2009. Although there was a swine flu pandemic on that occasion it was nothing like the civilisation-ending apocalypse the excitable media had led everyone to believe.
The Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, which publishes regular information on pandemic threats, is part of a global body of research institutions which, for obvious reasons, would be required almost exactly as-is in a socialist society. Nobody can possibly question the value of what such institutions do. Even creationists, who claim not to believe in evolution, rush fast enough for their annual vaccinations and understand well enough the need for them. We humans are locked in an arms race with microbes and only the most vigilant monitoring stands between us and some disaster of truly biblical proportions.
Other threats, however, are more debatable. Many of the scientists working on the H1N1 virus in 2009 objected to the research being published, for fear that terrorists could use the work to create a synthetic weapon. After 9/11 and a brief wave of anthrax letter-bombs the USA took this threat very seriously, and set up the Biowatch programme, which consisted of networks of sensors in urban areas including underground stations, designed to spot attempts to poison the public (New Scientist, 15 September). Ten years on and Biowatch has produced a null result, which ‘proves’ to its supporters that it has worked. This is like the old joke that an elephant-repellent spray must be working if you can’t see any elephants. Detractors however point to the billion dollar bill and the fact that in the same decade there has not been a single biological terrorism attack anywhere in the world. Given the clumsy, low-tech efforts of many would-be bombers in the past, perhaps the threat of such people managing to develop a bioweapon has indeed been overstated.
But what is one to make of the fact that a very real and present threat, one which everybody knows about, is actually being increasingly ignored? Hospitals are riddled with MRSA and c. Diff. so that it can be more dangerous to go to hospital than stay at home. 60 percent of infectious disease specialists report encountering infections untreatable by any antibiotic. Just when antibiotic resistance is becoming a world-wide problem, it turns out that drug companies are pulling out of antibiotic research (‘NIH superbug outbreak highlights lack of new antibiotics’, WashingtonPost, 25 August). Why? The answer is revealing.
In the first place, the antibiotic honeymoon is over. Like peak oil, we’ve hit peak bio, after which every development is harder and more expensive. It is all about the return on investment. When the field lay wide open in the 1940s and there was plenty of claim to stake and patents to be had, it was a bonanza. Now the well is dry, but unlike oil there is no way to wean humans off the need for antibiotics without seeing a return of the bubonic plague and other horrors. But drug companies are businesses which worry about profit, not plagues, so they are doing the sensible thing and pulling the plug on antibiotic research. You can’t argue the logic when you can make more money out of an erectile dysfunction drug than out of antibiotics. Of the 12 largest pharmaceutical companies only 4 are still doing any research.The largest, Pfizer, has laid off 1200 workers and closed its antibiotic research centre in Connecticut and moved to Shanghai and out of antibiotic research altogether.
Alternatives to antibiotics are, like alternatives to oil, scarcely credible at present. The widely-mooted idea of engineering viruses to eat bacterial pathogens is still some way off, with the first clinical trial in Western Europe only taking place in 2009. Bacteriophages are hard to make, because unlike antibiotics they are not one-size-fits-all. Each pathogen strain requires a different phage, and when a pandemic may present multiple strains simultaneously this is an obvious disadvantage. They are also hard to store, and of course each one has to go through independent regulatory hurdles before being approved for use. Given the increased expense of development plus the tightly restricted potential for patent exploitation, this is likely to make phage research even more unattractive to big pharma than antibiotics. In the event of a pandemic, phage research and production may very well be too slow and cumbersome to respond.
Antibiotics too are facing even more severe regulatory hurdles because of the scare surrounding the antibiotic Ketek, which led to a number of deaths in 2006. With lawyers circling hungrily, no drug regulator is taking any chances. At a time when new drugs are becoming ever more vital, regulators are stamping on the brakes.
‘It’s a case of evolution outrunning capitalism,’ says the Washington Post report. But it’s not a case of capitalism somehow failing to keep up with evolution, as if the two are locked in mortal combat. While the money was in antibiotics, capitalism delivered. Now it isn’t, capitalism has simply lost interest in the matter. The fact that the human race could potentially be decimated doesn’t enter into it.
This is one of the worst indictments of capitalism that it’s possible to make, its absolute defiance of common sense and the interests of the human species it supposedly serves. When science, logic and self-preservation all indicate one road, and money indicates the other, capitalism doesn’t think twice. People who congratulate capitalism for its competitive drive to produce innovation should reflect on the fact that no matter how much ingenuity it inspires in humans desperate to pay their rent, it stands capable at any moment of making the wrong decision just when the consequences could be fatal.
Paddy Shannon

Editorial: G.B. Shaw - A few notes (1950)

Editorial from the December 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard

The death of Bernard Shaw has been the instance of eulogies galore in all of which he is acclaimed as one of the great, if not of the greatest, intellectual giants of all time. One example of this is contained in the Times' "Literary Supplement" (10/11/1950) which concludes an editorial concerning him with these words:
   "Born when Queen Victoria had been but nineteen years on the throne, he was one of the bravest, most brilliant, and most incongruous bequests to us of an era already receding in the legendary and strange. There are never more than a dozen aristocrats of intellect in the world at the same time, if we are to credit Huysmans's calculation. One member of that supreme court is missing to-day, and his successor waits in the shade."
In our view this idea of an "aristocracy of intellect" is based upon an illusion and is fostered because it serves the interest of ruling classes. But let that pass. What we are concerned with here is the claim so often made that Shaw was a socialist who made an outstanding contribution to the socialist movement. This claim has been unceasingly made by the unblushing principal and his adherents during the past sixty odd years; on the part of the latter with an occasional tolerant and amused chuckle at his "crankiness." The basis of the claim is his tilting at social abuses and at smug "respectability." This tilting was really only the spearhead of his own smug worship of "men of ability," in the front rank of whom he modestly placed himself. So we will write a few words and quote a few of his own statements that relate to this claim.

In fact Shaw was not a socialist, never was one, and did not understand what Socialism implied. All his life he confused Socialism with State Capitalism and with a "business-like government." He envisaged a state ruled by a self-elected few who, at the best, would exercise a kind of benevolent despotism over the ignorant mass in a system based upon property with the buying and selling of goods. He swallowed and promulgates Samuel Butler's idea of an inborn "life force" which was the backbone of his particular "great man" theory.

Now let us see what he had to say in his younger days, when he was at the height of his thinking power.

In the "Fortnight Review" for February and March 1894 W. H. Matlock attacked the "Socialist" views of the Fabian Essayists, whom he described as sane and thoughtful men who were the real cream of the socialist movement. Bernard Shaw replied to Matlock in the issue for April, 1894.

The following quotations from his reply explain Shaw's outlook:
   "First, it is clear that such huge populations as ours really do owe their very existence to what Mr. Matlock defines as Ability [the inventing, discovering and managing], and not to what he defines as Labour [a form of human exertion used to pile up wealth].
   "If State Socialism of the most idiotic doctrinaire kind were to be set up complete to-morrow, and an ordinance issued that every man, from the highest to the lowest, should have exactly equal pay, then I could quite understand difficulties arising from every man insisting on being head of his department."
   "What is more I have no doubt that under Social-Democracy the few will still govern, and that, too, without having to consider at every step the vested interests of moneyed noodledom in the system of Conservatism! Well has Mr. Mallock pointed out that the evolution of society produces, not anarchy, but new types of ruler, and I would ask him to add, new forms of government . . . To-morrow it may be—who knows?—an able Labour Ministry, backed up by a bureaucracy nursed on Fabian Essays. And still Mr. Mallock's historic generalisation will hold good: the few will still govern the many."
After quoting a statement by F. A. Walker, an American economist, about the "economics of ability," he goes on:
   "There you have your skilled economist. He does not romance about capitalists inventing steamers: he shows you just the capitalist and the labourer running helplessly, the one with his money, the other with his muscle, to the able man, the acting organiser and employer, who alone is able to find a use for mere manual deftness, or for that brute strength or heavy bank balance which any fool may possess. And the landlord must put his acres in the same cunning hands. The landlord, capitalist and labourer can none of them do without the entrepreneur. He, as the only party in the transaction capable 'of the slightest initiative in production,' buys his three indispensables as cheaply as he can; pays the price out of what he makes out of them; and keeps the balance as his profit."
Shaw somewhere accused Shakespeare of snobbery on account of the way kings, princes, lords and ladies bulk in his plays. The above extracts show that he, himself, was also afflicted with the same disease in his respect for those to whom he mistakenly attributed "superior intelligence." From the extracts can also be seen how little difference there was between Shaw's "Socialism" and Capitalism. 

Whatever Shaw may have been as a dramatist and artist, as a writer on Socialism he was ignorant, incompetent and blown-up with the petty conceit of the self-styled intellectual. If we were asked what his outstanding contribution in this field was we would unhesitatingly reply that he was given considerable aid to that movement which has built up labour parties that have confused and beguiled multitudes of workers into a path leading to the blank alley of despair. In this field he will be remembered as a clever and witty decoy who helped to head off the march to revolutionary change.