Drugs Don’t Work


…was the second single from the Verve’s breakthrough “Urban Hymns” album, with “Bittersweet Symphony” being a very hard act to follow indeed. This is not quite what Richard Ashcroft had in mind though; in fact it’s much worse:

According to the study performed at the German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, more than half of the new drugs entering the German healthcare system show absolutely no added benefit.

Between 2011 and 2017, researchers examined 216 drugs that passed regulatory approval and entered the German market. Most of these assessed drugs were also approved by the European Medicines Agency for widespread use throughout greater Europe.

Alarmingly, only a quarter of those drugs showed any significant medical added benefit based on the available evidence. What’s more, 16% showed even a minor added benefit, and a whopping 58% of studied drugs did not show any added benefit over standard patient care.

When the drugs were separated by specialty, the results were just as unsettling: just 6% of psychiatric drugs showed added benefit, along with 17% of diabetes drugs.

But science!

Pharmaceuticals is a big industry; it makes a lot of money but it also spends a lot of money on research and development of new drugs, on compliance and testing, and on promotion and advertising. Because of the prohibitive costs of developing a new drug, only a small fraction of potentially good ideas and promising research in pharmacology and medical research gets anywhere. “Popular” diseases are favoured because they provide big enough market to recoup the costs. Sucks to be you if you suffer from something niche and obscure. Though if we are to trust the results of this German study, probably it doesn’t particularly matter, as based on these sorts of success rates it seems the winner is the placebo effect.

More important question is how is the situation allowed to happen when new medication go first through internal development and testing and then through mandated trials, and get an official tick at the end of the process despite the fact they don’t actually work. I know that the first Hippocratic principle is “do no harm”, but this seems to be an awfully expensive way to achieve that objective.

Perhaps we should not be surprised with the “do no harm, do no good drugs” when some 70 per cent of experiments and studies published in scientific literature cannot be subsequently replicated by other scientists (what’s the bet that that particular study’s results won’t be replicated in the future either?) What this all points to is a massive systemic problem at the heart of the modern science’s quest for the truth. I love science as much as the next person, probably more, on the account of the vast difference – mostly for the good – that the scientific and technological progress continues to make in every aspect of our daily lives. But let’s be careful not to treat science the same way that religion used to be in the times past. Both are human institutions and therefore equally imperfect and fallible. Clearly science enjoys a edge over religion whose claims cannot be proved or disproved (hence faith), but when you realise that witch doctors and herbalists our distant ancestors would consult in their times of trouble probably had similar success rates as the Big Pharma today, we need more humility all around.