In 1987 New York, was in the middle of the AIDS epidemic. Public Authorities were largely hostile to the gay community, and drugs companies were more concerned with profit than public health – Wellcome initially priced the first AIDs drug AZT at $10,000 per patient per year.
The response to this indifference was the launch of ACT UP, a grassroots political movement that campaigns to this day for better treatment for AIDS and better conditions for people with AIDS. Together with their art wing Gran Fury, they have changed the way the world views AIDS, and changed the course of AIDS research, leading to a new generation of antiretroviral drugs to tackle the disease.
In the early 80s life expectancy after testing HIV positive was only a few years. Today, with an early diagnosis and effective treatments, most people with HIV will not develop any AIDS-related illnesses and will live a near-normal lifespan. The pharmaceutical industry did develop some incredibly effective drugs, but it was the efforts of campaigners like ACT UP which forced them to act. These are ACT UP activists on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange urging traders to sell Wellcome shares:
In November this year Pfizer asked for emergency approval for Paxlovid, a new oral protease inhibitor for Covid. It is the first new treatment to go through clinical trials and prove effective. The origins of Paxlovid emerged from the development of antiretrovirals for AIDS. Without that original research, spurred on by the campaigns of ACT UP and other organisations, we wouldn’t have an effective treatment for Covid.
The way that the Pharmaceutical industry has brought vaccines and treatments forward for Covid has been inspirational, but we should pause for a moment and reflect on the people who campaigned for research into drugs for AIDs in the 80s and 90s, often in the face of huge prejudice. Their bravery then is our benefit now.
People tend to have a dim view of the Pharmaceutical industry – more concerned with profit than developing cures for illnesses. I share some of those concerns. When you watch the Great North Run or the London Marathon you will see runners in coloured vests raising money for medical research charities. Each one of those coloured vests represents market failure – the research that people want isn’t being done commercially and charities (or the NHS/Universities) do it instead.
But I am positive about the future of the Pharmaceutical industry. Just as war spurred innovation in manufacturing Covid has created a massive amount of research into cures and vaccines. The vast majority of these will never be used against Covid, but some will repurposed into use against other diseases, and the rest will form a huge library of treatments for future pandemics.
I realise that this feels like a qualified endorsement of the pharmaceutical industry, and a more serious endorsement of campaigners like ACT UP, but this year saw the worlds first malaria vaccine approved, a drug which has the potential to transform life expectancy globally, and which will transform the lives of millions.
I know it has been a grim year, or two, but I feel more positive about the future than I have been for a long time.