Racist Drugs?

RACIST DRUGS?….You’d think that a new heart drug that helps African-Americans would be unalloyed good news. And it is. But as with practically anything where race and money intersect, even good news like this seems to bring out the worst in us. First there’s this:

Although many cardiologists Monday hailed the findings because blacks die from heart failure at twice the rate of whites, some geneticists were concerned, arguing that racial categories were an inappropriate way to guide medical treatment.

….[Ethicist Jonathan Kahn] said the label sent the wrong message in a society where blacks often received inadequate medical treatment. “It lends credence to the idea that blacks and whites are genetically different,” he said. “And it’s a short step from saying blacks are genetically different to saying they are genetically inferior.”

Enough already! If there’s a genetic difference, there’s a genetic difference. If there isn’t, there isn’t. And the drug either works or it doesn’t. But those are scientific question, not ethical ones. Sensitivity to past injustices is an honorable thing, but racial progress is doomed to eternal failure if we’re unable to discuss even an arid topic like pharmaceutical efficacy without forever worrying about what the Klan is going to think of it.

But that’s not all. The drug in question, BiDil, is just a combination of two cheap generic drugs, and apparently the racial labeling of the combination is what’s really at stake here:

[Jay] Cohn holds a patent on using the combination to treat all races, but that patent expires in 2007. NitroMed has a patent on using it to treat blacks, and that patent is good until 2020, preventing anyone from bringing out a generic version of the combination pill before then. Physicians could, however, prescribe the two drugs individually to either blacks or whites. A dose of the generic drugs costs about 44 cents.

BiDil has not been tested in whites in conjunction with ACE inhibitors, and experts argued that it might be effective in them as well. But because the drug’s patent for general use is set to expire, it seems unlikely that any company would fund such a trial.

Isn’t that lovely? Maybe it works for whites too, but there’s no money in it so no one’s going to bother finding out. For blacks, there is enough money in it to make testing worthwhile, but in the end it turns out that BiDil is mostly a marketing gimmick that provides a way for NitroMed to charge them more for drugs that already exist. It’s almost like the worst of both worlds, isn’t it?