Profit drive by drug bosses leads to shortages of cancer medicines

By Brian Williams
January 15, 2024

A growing shortage of drugs key to the treatment of cancer today, which could mean life or death for millions of people, exposes in one of the most graphic ways how health care in the U.S. is sacrificed to the capitalists’ dog-eat-dog drive for profit.

“Fifteen crucial drugs — the kind that can render cancers curable — have been out of stock in hospitals for months,” Scientific American reported Sept. 18. “Doctors have had to ration their dwindling supplies, scrimp on dosages and swap out prescriptions with inferior alternatives.”

The most important treatments in short supply include the platinum-based injectable drugs carboplatin and cisplatin, which are used to treat cancers of the lung, bladder, breast and prostate, among others.

These and many other cancer drugs are generics that big pharma companies determined were no longer profitable to produce. Over the past year the closing of factories in the U.S. producing these two drugs, as well as methotrexate, have cut the supply of these three key drugs nearly in half.

A Sept. 12 statement by the Joseph Biden White House vowed that its so-called Cancer Moonshot project would do something about this crisis. But over three months later, little has happened. The problem, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf told the New York Times Dec. 19, “is due to economic factors that we don’t control.” He wouldn’t say it, but he means the for-profit system that runs the medical business in the U.S.

Often there are only a few companies — or even just one — that produce a given generic drug. And a so-called gray market of distributors exploits drug shortages to boost profits. They purchase generic medications at lower prices and then sell them to hospitals and clinics at steeply marked-up prices, sometimes 1,000% higher.

Bosses skimp on safety

Bosses skimp on safely producing these drugs, endangering the lives of those desperate to use them. That’s what happened at an Intas Pharmaceuticals plant in northwestern India, for example, which supplies 50% of the U.S. supply of cisplatin. An FDA inspection showed that the company altered records, skimped on testing raw ingredients and flouted lab control protocols. “It even destroyed evidence of its wrongdoing — by dousing documents with acid,” reported Scientific American. The plant halted production in December 2022, compounding shortages over the next year.

Stephanie Scanlan, a manager of a state office in Tallahassee, Florida, told the Times she found herself unable to get two of the three drugs, including cisplatin, over the spring and summer last year. Her doctors told her that with the drugs she had a good chance to overcome a rare bone cancer. As a result of the shortage, the cancer spread to her ribs and spine. She was then forced to have a part of her arm amputated in September, which otherwise could have been repaired.

“I’m scared to death,” she told the Times. “This is America. Why are we having to choose who we save?”

Nearly every major U.S. cancer center reported they faced chemotherapy drug shortfalls last spring and summer. One study released in August said nearly 60% of more than 1,000 pharmacies that responded described the shortages as “critically impactful.”

Among those hit the hardest are working people residing in rural areas where supplies of these drugs are even more scarce in smaller hospitals and clinics. Patients are forced to travel long distances to access treatments, assuming they can find somewhere where they’re available.

Peggy Ashworth, 87, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in early 2021. Last February, her doctors informed her that because of the shortage, she would need to drive two hours from her home on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston to get treatment. “It seemed kind of unreal,” she told NBC News. “You just kind of wonder how in this day and age that can happen.”

“These experiences point to the deadly contradiction between workers need for health care and the for-profit medical business under capitalism. Health care is a basic human right. It needs to be free and available to all from cradle to grave,” Joanne Kuniansky, Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. Senate from New Jersey, told the Militant Jan. 1. “To win this, working people need to build a class-struggle leadership and millions-strong movement to take political power out of the hands of the capitalist thieves who run the health industry racket today. And join the fight for socialism to end the system of capitalist exploitation and oppression once and for all.”