issue 182 - April 1988
The good, the bad and the ugly
By Dan Clery: a member of the Science for People collective of
the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science.
Good science funding means putting money into projects to help as many people as possible and give them control over their lives.
The humble discovery that a mixture of sugar, salt and clean water prevents death from diarrhoea was hailed by the British medical journal Lancet as 'potentially the most important medical advance this century'. And yet it was ignored for years.
In Third World countries five million children under five die each year because of the dehydration caused by acute diarrhoea. Two million of these could be saved by a simple solution known as oral rehydration therapy (ORT). ORT was discovered in the late 1940s, but it was not until the Pakistan War in 1971 that it was put to the test by an Indian medical team trying to combat a cholera epidemic in the refugee camps. Within eight weeks they managed to reduce the death rate from 30 per cent to 3.6 per cent.
Still the miracle treatment was slow to spread. By the end of the 1970s fewer than one per cent of children had access to it. Then in 1980 the World Health Organization launched their global Diarrhoeal Diseases Control Programme with a modest one-million-dollar annual budget. By 1985 an estimated 30 per cent of children were being treated and half a million lives a year were being saved.
Nevertheless Western drug companies still managed to sell $430 million worth of expensive, often ineffective and even harmful anti-diarrhoeal drugs between 1983 and 1984. That's twice what it would cost to provide enough ORT for every under-five in the world for a year.
Bad funding means pouring money into projects that are likely either to do people harm or make them feel helpless about their lives.
RONALD REAGAN said he had been inspired by 'the hand of providence' when he launched the four -billion - dollar Strategic Defense Initiative - or Star Wars - research programme.
The idea is to create an impenetrable umbrella of advanced weaponry that will orbit the earth and shoot down any Soviet missiles before they reach the US. Huge amounts of public money are going into research on high-powered lasers, particle beams and electromagnetic guns as well as sensitive radar and an enormously complex computer system.
But a large part of the scientific community says the entire costly project is a nonsense. Because there is no evidence that the 'defensive' weapons will be powerful or accurate enough, that the sensors will be sensitive enough, or that the computer system will be able to cope with tens of thousands of approaching warheads - and decoys - without ever having been tested in realistic conditions.
So what are the benefits of SDI? Not improved East-West relations, that's for sure. The programme contravenes the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which forbids either superpower from testing or deploying defensive anti-missile systems. Nor improved living standards for ordinary people. The US federal budget has caused enough damage to the global economy as it is.
No, the only possible beneficiaries are the scientists sitting pretty on massive research grants - and arms manufacturers, rubbing their hands in anticipation of the huge orders they will receive if the project goes ahead.
Ugly funding means putting money into scientific research that allows some to make fortunes out of the misfortune of others.
ZIDOVUDINE - formerly known as AZT - is the only licensed drug for the treatment of AIDS. It is not a cure, but it slows down the replication of the virus thought to cause AIDS. Zidovudine thus extends life and provides a measure of hope for thousands of AIDS sufferers.
Zidovudine is also one of the most expensive prescription drugs ever produced. In 1987 it cost $10,000 for a year's prescription. The reason for its exorbitant price is a secret of the drug company that holds a monopoly on its production: Wellcome.
Zidovudine was discovered in 1964 at the US-Government-funded National Cancer Institute in Detroit, but proved too toxic for use as an anti-cancer drug. In 1984 its effect on the AIDS virus was noticed and the project was simply handed over to Wellcome - along with exclusive marketing rights for seven years, tax incentives and no price restrictions. With 19,000 people being treated with the drug worldwide - and the market growing by the minute - Wellcome is onto a winner.
But why is Zidovudine so expensive? Wellcome claims to have spent $115 million on research, development and production of the new drug, but admits that 'future' costs are included in this figure.
Meanwhile the company has been delaying or actually blocking other research into a cure for AIDS. Because it is the only licensed AIDS drug, Zidovudine is the standard against which other drugs must be tested. But last year Wellcome refused to supply samples for testing against the drug Interferon Alpha produced by Wellcome's arch-rival Hoffman-LaRoche.