By Abid Iqbal Choon
You know, in superhero movies where there is this one unified, evil entity that is trying to take over or destroy the world? Some might take it way too seriously in the real world. Painting the whole pharmaceutical industry as a whole to be a single entity that operates for sinister purposes and against the public good; some even accuse the Big Pharma for having-the-cure-for-cancer-but-decides-to-hide-them for whatever evil plans they have (milking as much money as possible from the consumers).
The Big Pharma conspiracy
There are some funny recurring themes that you can recognize in these conspiracy theories about the Big Pharma. Firstly, as mentioned above, the Big Pharma work together to achieve a common goal to manipulate the masses in order to make big bucks. Next, the public are ignorant to this fact and are “brainwashed” under the Big Pharma’s “evil plan” while there are only a few people that know the truth (doesn’t that sound like it is from a novel?), hence they need to be the “heroes” by spreading awareness about how “evil” the Big Pharma is. Thirdly, which is certainly the giveaway of these conspiracy theories is how the theorists think and their approach to evidence. Apparently, lack of evidence for the conspiracy is the evidence for the conspiracy.
All for one, or free for all?
Certainly, the fact that claiming the whole pharmaceutical industry operates as one unit to achieve one same goal is absurd. They are actually disconnected, diverse, disorganized and have different goals. They compete with each other to prove that their own drugs are the best, the safest and the most efficient while trying to expose bad drugs from rival companies. How would they achieve this one common goal when this is what they are doing to each other? Some even say the Big Pharma deliberately develop drugs that treat, rather than cure because the logic is if one makes so much money for a lifetime usage of drugs that they produce, why bother producing a single treatment that cures the disease once and for all?
Herein is where the flaw lies, all the drug companies are fighting each other in order to be the one that produce a total cure to a certain disease rather than a drug that would just merely treat it. This may sound counter-intuitive, but the one who holds the cure will actually make more money rather that what is claimed by the conspiracy theorists. This can be seen recently with Sovaldi (developed by Gilead Sciences), which cures Hepatitis C infections, contrary to other medications that just suppresses the infection such as ribavirin/interferon therapy. Sovaldi had the most profitable drug launch in the history of pharmaceuticals, with a profit of $10.3 billion within just the first year on the market. No CEO of these independent drug companies are going to let the other rival companies to have that privilege. Aside from the money, there is also the glory factor. Which company wouldn’t want to be remembered in history as the company that managed to eradicate a certain disease?
What is worse is that the theorists believe each and every single individual from the pharmaceutical industry is out to get them. As if all of them would be okay poisoning their own children or family with the “poison” made by the Big Pharma (e.g. vaccines, GMO or chemotherapy) just to make a few bucks for the shareholders?
Examining the theorists logic under a microscope
Putting the theorist logic under scrutiny, it can be seen that this particular line of thinking dominates, in which they would be arguing “whoever benefits the most from the misfortune is the cause of the misfortune”. This is known as the ‘cui bono’ fallacy. One needs to understand that just because one benefits from a certain misfortune does not necessitate they are the cause of the misfortune. It is possible, but it is not conclusive. Highly speculative, yes. Most of the time they are just baseless accusations being thrown around. One possible way to understand the reason behind these claims is that it is easier to put the blame on a figure or someone else on any calamity that happened to you. It is reassuring to know the bad things that happen is not random, but rather it is caused by an evil entity.
In psychology, this mechanism of coping with disasters that happen in one’s life is called “rationalization”. It is so much easier to give reasons or meanings to an unfortunate event in order to get over the suffering rather than facing and accepting it head on. One who had a relative or somebody close to them dying due to the failure of obtaining the proper (maybe unaffordable) medication might bear a grudge to the pharmaceutical industry and thus, succumbing to such conspiracy theories, trying to rationalize what happened to them. Besides the irrational fact that humans try to make up all sorts of imaginary stories to cope with this cold hearted life, there are certainly some other factors to be considered as to why this sort of line of thinking can even exist, leading to the propagation of such conspiracy theories.
Their worldview. Some might be too religiously zealous, trying to see things that are not actually there (everyone is conspiring against them), trying to fit their (flawed) observations and logic to what their religion teaches. In the major religions, the study of end of times (called eschatology) usually have something to do with a major villain figure (such as the Anti-Christ or the Dajjal in Christianity and Islam respectively). The gist of the teaching is that these figures will be controlling the world behind the scenes (think the Illuminati) to lead them astray. There has been some research that tells us religious people are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.  Religious people are also linked to be less-rational about their thinking and decision making.
This leads to my next point, lack of critical thinking. Most of the time, the theorists are not critical thinkers and they are rather blind followers to whatever conspiracy theories they listen to because “they sound right”. These theories “sound right” to them because they are not able to critically evaluate any of these theories, in which they are unable to arrive at the correct conclusion.
Expanding on the ‘cui bono’ fallacy, a common claim is that a cure is being withheld to make people depend on a more expensive yet less effective medication. Though this claim is usually how alternative medicine (which includes cheaper and “natural” medication such as baking soda and marijuana) is promoted. The more extreme claim is that the Big Pharma deliberately engineers certain viruses or diseases just so they can sell extremely expensive vaccines.
The Anti-science hero we (don’t) need
There is one guy who brought this to a whole new level. Enter Mike Adams. He is the publisher of Natural News (formerly known as News Target) and popular online guru (he calls himself the “Health Ranger”) that promotes “alternative” health and natural lifestyle products online. He promotes anti-biotech and biotech sentiments, calling biotech scientists to be “the most despicable humanoids to walk the face of this planet” and claim that they promote “junk science” and are anti-human. He has even gone as far as calling other anti-GMO activists to kill scientists and science journalists, written in a post titled “Biotech genocide, Monsanto collaborators and the Nazi legacy of ‘science’ as a justification for murder”, quoted as follows,
“it is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.”
One of the biggest claims he made was that to cure the swine flu (the H1N1 flu outbreak that happened in 2009), all you need is vitamin D but since the Big Pharma cannot charge it for a high price, this flu was manufactured specifically just so the vaccines can be sold. One of the huge problems with such an act is that the lives of the public is at stake here. Lying about such dangerous outbreak and making people to not believe in the vaccine made to counter the outbreak could have grave consequences. Which is all the reason for us to debunk this conspiracy just so lives are not lost due to such petty hoaxes.
Into the ugly side of pharmaceutical capitalism
Of course, all in all, there are some unavoidable side effects that caused deaths (although it is less likely to happen) from the drugs that are produced by the Big Pharma. Such risks are used as a blanket excuse by the conspiracy theorists to allegedly conclude that the drugs are poison, therefore, the Big Pharma conspiracy.
However, there is no denying that the pharmaceutical companies are so capitalistic to a certain extent, for example, Turing Pharmaceuticals who decided to charge $750 per pill for a drug (named Daraprim which is an antiparasitic that is commonly used to treat HIV patients) that was $13.50. That is about 5500% of the original price! There is no denying in this capitalist world that making profit is something of an utmost importance when you are running a business, but doing it in the pharmaceutical industry, there is something else that you need to consider. What is the ultimate purpose of producing drugs? Isn’t it to help others who have illness? Is the money gained worth the lives of others who couldn’t afford such drugs just because they are poor?
These are the sort of questions the pharmaceutical industry needs to ponder upon.