Wednesday, June 17, 2009


It looks like I can thank Laura Flanders for directing me towards the leading candidate for this week's Chutzpah of the Week award. She is (among many other things) one of the contributors to The Notion, which is a collective blog site maintained by The Nation. Her post this morning speaks for itself in language that is as clear as it is compelling:

The Swiss drug company Novartis will not give free vaccines against H1N1 flu to poor countries -- it will only consider discounts.

Novartis's refusal comes in the wake of a request from the Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan, who has called for drug companies to show solidarity with poor countries as they develop vaccines against the H1NI or "swine flu" pandemic.

Just by way of reminder, H1N1 has infected around 30,000 people globally, mostly in North America, though there have been a few deaths outside Mexico and the United States. Europe suffered its first death on Sunday. The first has just been reported in Argentina.

Help the poor prevent a pandemic? Novartis said 'No'. That's Novartis --makers of Exedrin and Bufferin -- I guess they haven't made enough off those over-the-counter best-sellers.

"If you want to make production sustainable, you have to create financial incentives," explained Novartis Chief Executive Daniel Vasella.

By "financial incentives" he means the 'p' word: profits.

Spot the flaw in the profit-driven approach to health care? Anyone?

Financial incentives?

When a pandemic isn't incentive enough -- I'd say we have another 'p' word -- a problem.

Bearing in mind that the pharmaceutical industry is almost too easy a target for chutzpah accusations, this is such a clear example of warped priorities that it deserves to be singled out for recognition. By placing the interests of shareholders (presumably including himself) above the exigencies of dealing with a pandemic as effectively and rapidly as resources allow, Vasella has built up a "chutzpah reserve" that could easily see him through several awards. For now, however, I shall just live in the present, give him the award, and hope that he places it next to the computer monitor he uses to track the value of Novartis shares.

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