I hate to say "I told you so," but there it is. We haven't gotten to the point of mass vaccination yet, but give it time. The fact that we haven't is mainly because there isn't a zika vaccine ready. However, this month Congress did pass a bill laying some pretty tasty goodies on Big Pharma's plate anyway, all in the name of zika. Here's what happened:
Congress passed a bill that lets the FDA include companies who are developing zika drugs in the "priority review" voucher program. This means that any company who's working on a zika drug, whether it's a vaccine, a treatment, or something else can get a voucher allowing them to get another drug fast-tracked through the system and FDA-approved faster.
This might not sound like much, but these vouchers are like a golden ticket for Big Pharma. They cut the time it takes a drug to get approved by several months. This can translate into millions of dollars in the short term, and in the long term it might translate into billions—if it means a company can get a drug on the market before a competitor releases a similar drug.
Priority review vouchers: pricey trading cards for Big Pharma
To be clear: I'm not saying these companies will have their zika drugs fast-tracked. There's another program for fast-tracking drugs for diseases that don't have a drug to treat them yet. What I'm really saying is it's not about zika at all—that zika is just an excuse to get one of these coveted vouchers.
Because they can use these vouchers to get any drug they're working on fast-tracked. And you can bet most of these "priority review" drugs won't be drugs for tropical diseases or even cancer. They'll be the ones Big Pharma hopes will be blockbusters—more cholesterol drugs we don't need, diabetes drugs that are more dangerous and less effective than what's already on the market, and so on. The priority review vouchers are a big winner for Big Pharma. And that's not even the best part.
They don't have to use these vouchers themselves. They can sell them to other companies, which can be a very, very lucrative deal. The record so far has been $350 million, which AbbVie paid for a voucher last year.
And they don't necessarily have to actually get their zika drug to market. They just need to be developing one in order to get a voucher. Most drugs in development never make it to market. It's one of the boilerplate excuses for why drugs cost so much. But that's ok, Big Pharma still gets a golden ticket they can sell to the highest bidder.
How is this going to spur Big Pharma to get zika drugs on the market? It's simple—it won't. What it will get on the market is whatever drug a company already has earmarked as a possible blockbuster, and it will get it there months ahead of competitors.
How to make billions without even trying
Keep in mind too that, no matter what's insinuated, there is still no hard evidence that zika causes birth defects. I know, I know, the World Health Organization is telling us that there is a "scientific consensus" that it does. The headlines are saying "CDC says zika causes microcephaly." That doesn't alter the fact that no solid link has been scientifically established. Period. Some scientists believe it, but they have yet to actually prove it.
No one yet has addressed the question of why, when zika has been around the tropics for several generations, we've never seen an "epidemic" of birth defects before now. Or, for that matter, why we're not seeing them in other places that are heavily zika-infected. And on top of that, they're still glossing over this fact: even using the numbers of cases currently being reported, Brazil still has a much lower per-capita rate of microcephaly—the most concerning birth defect—than the U.S.
None of that makes any sense if zika really is the monster disease they're portraying, and it makes it that much more important for them to produce indisputable proof of a link.
Which they haven't done.
Instead, they just keep repeating, "We believe there's a link." Well I believe there are purple unicorns. Does that make it true? But some scientists believe there's a link, therefore the link must exist, they say. They repeat it often. They repeat it loudly, loudly enough to drown out any voices that disagree. And they tell us that there's "a strong scientific consensus."
Which really doesn't mean diddly-squat. For centuries there was a strong scientific consensus that the sun revolved around the earth and that the earth was flat, but that didn't make it true. There was a strong scientific consensus that fat made us fat and carbs made us skinny for decades, but that wasn't true either.
Now there are calls for billions of dollars to be "diverted" to "fighting zika," even though the hard evidence is still lacking. I still say the whole story stinks to high heaven. It's a classic Big Guy move: create a problem (zika), whip the general population into a panic (done), then offer a solution (make new drugs), and finally make billions from said solution.
Is it possible that zika causes birth defects? Anything is possible. Is there hard evidence? No, no matter how loudly they may shout "I believe."
Should we be cautious? Yes, of course we should. Caution is always a smart idea when we're not sure what we're dealing with. Should we be spending billions on a treatment for something we're not sure is that dangerous? No. But since Big Pharma is calling the shots here—no pun intended—we almost certainly will. And this newest monetary gift to Big Pharma is just the first step.