By Sarah Bates
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Medicine shortages because profits rule

The bosses greed is meaning that ordinary people can't get their hands on lifesaving medication
Issue 2911
medication medicines drugs NHS

“Supply chain issues” are stopping people from getting essential medication

Greedy drug company bosses are pulling life saving medications from the shelves because they’re not trousering enough cash.

“Supply chain issues” are stopping ordinary people from getting essential medication.

But these delays aren’t an unavoidable consequence of manufacturing medicine. They are a direct result of capitalist production driven by profit, rather than need. South Africa is one good example. Some 4.2 million people live with diabetes in the country—that’s one in nine adults.

For ten years, most diabetes patients benefited from single-use insulin pens supplied by the state health system. Yet this year patients are being forced to transfer to a more dangerous system where they measure and administer insulin drawn from vials.

This is because Novo Nordisk, the world’s largest producer of insulin, chose not to renew a three-year contract for some 14 million pens. Instead, the firm is increasing production of popular weight loss drug Ozempic.

Both Ozempic and the ­similar drug Wegovy utilise the single use pen technology produced by many of the same manufacturers of insulin pens.

Costing around £790 for a month’s supply, Ozempic is hugely profitable for manufacturers. In contrast, Novo Nordisk was contracted for around £1.60 for each ­insulin pen.

“They’re shifting the focus on the more profitable line,” said Khadija Jamaloodien, the director of procurement for South Africa’s health service.

But the shift from single use pens to vials is going to cause real problems for ­diabetes patients. It is much harder to ­measure the correct dose, and more imprecise. “Insulin vials and syringes are outdated and difficult to use,” a national association of medical specialists treating diabetes said.

“They contribute ­negatively both to quality of life for people with diabetes, and poor continued medication adherence, which leads to expensive long term diabetes complications.”

It’s a global problem, with more firms likely to withdraw production. Eli Lilly—the other major producer of insulin—said it can’t make enough to meet demand for its own weight loss drug Zepbound.

It’s a perfect illustration of how access to healthcare for ordinary people is deemed less valuable than the latest lifestyle fad for the rich.

And it shows how ­capitalist production affords bosses of big firms huge power. They are allowed to make decisions so large they shape national public health policy.

Such decisions will ­overwhelmingly impact poor people in the Global South—some 80 percent of people with diabetes live in low and middle income countries.

But even in Britain, these same “supply chain issues” are making it extremely hard to get hold of critical medication.

Nearly half of adults haven’t been able to get their prescribed medication in the last two years, according to a survey by the British Generic Manufacturers Association.

Some 17 percent said they went without their medication, while 30 percent said they travelled to other pharmacies to try and source it.

And data from the Department of Health and Social Care reveals that some 26 percent of generic medicines have been in short supply for more than 12 months and 39 percent for more than six months.

Dr Matthew McConkey, who works with ADHD patients, said shortages were driving people to their “wits’ end”. He said there was increased risks of car accidents, anxiety and other “profound impacts”. 

“I’ve heard of some adults asking their bosses to make reasonable adaptions because of the fact that they aren’t having access to medication and in some cases these people have lost their jobs.” Modern medicine should allow working class people to live better lives.

But by organising ­production on the basis of profit, rather than need, even the medicines that keep us alive are reduced to a commodity for those who can afford them.

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