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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Monday, December 26, 2005

A voice crying in the wilderness of AIDS research

I love a good conspiracy theory. Automobile manufacturers and oil companies secretly bought up a patent that would allow cars to get 300 miles per gallon of gas. The government is covering up the crash landing of a flying saucer in Roswell, N.M., from back in the 1940s. The Vatican is hiding the fact that Jesus was married to Mary Magdeline and they had a child whose bloodline survives to today. The Jews were behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks and all the Jewish workers in the World Trade Cetner called in sick that day. The Church of Scientology keeps the lid on the sexual orientation of certain major movie star (*cough* John Travolta and Tom Cruise *cough*) so they will entice new recruits into the cult through their frequent appearances on "Entertainment Tonight." Pope Benedict XVI, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Pat Robertson and several other religious leaders are against same-sex marriage because they know their boyfriends would push them toward the altar if gay marriage was ever legalized.

OK ... so I made up that last one. But it's really no more outlandish than any of the others listed (or a whole bunch more that could be listed).

Most conspiracy theories have their basis in two very basic human needs: the need to understand something and the need to justify our deeply held feelings that people in authority simply can't be trusted.

Since it was first uncovered in 1981, AIDS has been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories. A bad batch of Swine Flu vaccine was claimed to be the origin of the AIDS pandemic. Another theory claimed that researchers were working on an "ethnovirus" designed to wipe out a specific ethnic group - in this case blacks - but the virus got out of control and entered the rest of the world's population. Some gays claimed that the government conspired to stall progress on an AIDS cure until a big chunk of the gay popluation had been wiped out.

Now comes the latest crackpot AIDS conspiracy theory. According to a recent Associated Press article, the federal chief of AIDS research says he believes drug companies don't have an incentive to create a vaccine for the HIV and are likely to wait to profit from it after the government develops one.

Or is it a crackpot conspiracy theory?

The speculation that the pharmaceutical industry was likely to sit back and wait for government-funded research to come up with a vaccine comes from recently released testimony from Dr. Edmund Tramont, head of the AIDS research division of the National Institutes of Health, who testified in a deposition in the whistleblower case of Dr. Jonathan Fishbein.

"If we look at the vaccine, HIV vaccine, we're going to have an HIV vaccine. It's not going to be made by a company," Tramont said. "They're dropping out like flies because there's no real incentive for them to do it. We have to do it."

"They will eventually -- if it works, they won't have to make that big investment. And they can make it and sell it and make a profit," he said.

So Dr. Tramont is suggesting that the giant drug companies are waiting until some scientist working under a poorly funded government grant at some university of research institute makes a breakthrough? And that once a breakthrough is made, the drug companies will swoop down like vultures on a corpse and maximize their profits by taking advantage of the research? And that the lives of the millions of people around the world infected by HIV are simply numbers to be factored in when figuring profits' bottom line?

The idea has all the earmarks of a grand conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, in this case, the conspiracy theory is very likely true.

Despite all the press releases they send out and warm and fuzzy TV commercials they make talking about how much they care about finding a cure for AIDS (or cancer or diabetes or any other as yes uncureable disease) drug companies are not altruistic entities. They exist to make a profit. No, strike that. They exist to make the most profit possible. If, by chance, they benefit someone along with way, that's just icing on the cake and a chance to trumpet about what paragons of virtue they are.

For pharmaceutical companies the bottom line is this: You can make more money by treating a disease than curing it.

If you cure a disease, you get paid once. If you treat a disease, you get paid every time a patient goes to the drug store to get a prescription refilled. Take diabetes, for example. Rates of diabetes have been steadily increasing over the past few decades. That's certainly an incentive for drug companies to come up a cure. Oh sure, there are frequent "We're getting close to a cure" statements, but those a tiny, incremental steps that in the meantime will mean patients will keep pumping money into the system for drugs, monitoring supplies and the like. A "cure" would mean that money would suddenly dry up.

Ten years ago medical science developed the expensive "AIDS cocktail" approach to treating AIDS. Since then they have raked in profits from keeping AIDS patients coming back again and again for more drugs that won't cure them, but may prolong their lives.

So, no, there is no incentive for drug companies to spend money looking for a cure for a disease when they can make even more money from treating again and again and again.

And, far from being another crackpot conspiracy theorist wildly shouting his ideas to anyone who will listen, Dr. Tramont comes a lot closer to being a modern-day version of an Old Testament prophet with "a voice crying in the wilderness."