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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Baker Plan to Eliminate Private Drug Development

Personally, I'm very sympathetic to the Baker plan to have the government get more involved the later stages of drug development. Progressive economist Dean Baker wants the government to start funding clinical trials and develop drugs that would then be released into the public domain. Although the government spends a lot on pharmaceutical research now, they mainly fund basic research and leave the private sector to take the drugs to market. I'd be happy to throw in a billion dollars of taxpayer money to fund Baker's plan.

I think that eventually, it would probably succeed well enough to justify spending 10 or 20 billion a year. But Baker seems keen to go whole hog, and eliminate private drug research and patents as soon as possible. And that scares me.

Patents have worked tremendously well for hundreds of years. The track record of Baker's system is what exactly? That it would probably succeed just isn't good enough to justify anything more than evolutionary change. The stakes are, after all, life and death. And keep in mind that the promised payoff from the Baker plan is a few hundred bucks a year per person.

And it's easy to think of reasons to be cautious about the Baker plan for eliminating all private drug research. The Christian right is currently fighting the "morning after" pill and even a vaccine that prevents cervical cancer, because they believe both will encourage sexual activity among women. If government were the only institution funding drug development, religious fundamentalists would have a much easier time killing drugs they don't like.

Similarly, if Baker or Marcia Angell were in charge, I'd imagine they'd stop research into the "me too" drugs they're constantly criticizing. Which might leave us with drugs like Vioxx (which causes heart attacks) and not the "me too" alternative Celebrex, which doesn't seem to have the same problems.

So, in the end, I think Baker has a good idea, but he tries to make it sound as radical as possible. Consequently his plan sounds a whole lot worse than it would if he were actually trying to pitch his idea and convince people. I really don't understand what Baker's game is here.

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