Jim Duffy comment: Big pharma’s hay fever model not to be sniffed at

Jim Duffy sees zombification taking place in the start-up scene. Picture: Ian Howarth.
Jim Duffy sees zombification taking place in the start-up scene. Picture: Ian Howarth.
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There is no doubt this has been one of the worst months in recent history for hay fever ­sufferers in Scotland and the UK.

Sneezing, enraged olfactory systems and sore eyes that feel attacked by a sandstorm are just some of the terrible symptoms. In some cases, these last for a few hours each day, but for many these can be debilitating. They can cause strains on relationships at home and at work, with many having to call in sick as they struggle to function with puffy eyes and lack of motivation. But in the 21st century, should there not be a cure or better fix for this?

Pharmacies are selling bucketloads of so-called hay fever treatments and remedies. Eye drops to soothe aching and irritable eyes that are literally crying out for some relief. Nasal drops to ease the inflammation and swelling, while stopping that drippy sensation and, of course, long bouts of sneezing. Hay fever tablets are supposed to reduce the effects of histamines in the blood steam. Yes, the big pharma companies are raking it in as we all pay through the nose to feel better. But are they really doing all they can?

With one in five people suffering in the UK, and the “pollen bomb” now upon us, the media is full of adverts promoting brands that will soothe and comfort. ­Tissues with balm to help stop your poor nose from getting chafed as you have to continually wipe it. Eye drops and eye sprays that melt away the itch. Antihistamine tablets to lessen the effects and calm things down from the inside.

There is no doubt that the drug ­companies and the supermarkets are cashing in on our suffering. But we are not alone. America shells out more than $5 billion a year on allergy-type medicines, enticed by slick adverts and doctor ­recommendations. Still the adverts keep coming, but the hay fever is not cured.

I wonder if the drug companies put more resources and spend into finding a cure and less into promoting and marketing their current medications, then sufferers globally could get a better deal. After all, recurring revenues trump a one-time fix, so why find the fix?

There is a comparison with ­diabetes in terms of the “cure”. The diabetes ­conspiracy theorists claim that big pharma has a cure, but it is locked away in a vault deep underground with armed guards and a string of Jason Bourne-type assets ready to be activated should anyone ever try to penetrate the security. So too with the “cure” for hay fever. ­Perish the thought that a cheap cure or pill could put a halt to things. I can just see the pharma CEOs sweating over their patents. No more billions in nose sprays…

It is estimated that each hay fever season costs sufferers about £60 each to feel good about their symptoms. Some will opt for over-the-counter products, while others head to the doctor and essentially get prescribed the same remedies.

But it is when the supermarkets start to market their own brands for sufferers that we know it is a lucrative business. Perhaps the supermarkets are indeed doing us as favour. In the same way, we can now buy a packet of paracetamol for pennies, when own-brand drug company paracetamol costs five to ten times the amount in some cases, I recently saved pounds when buying Asda’s own branded hay fever goodies. At least I feel better knowing I’m not paying over the odds.

Like everything that involves R&D spend and innovation with big licensing costs, big pharma companies know how to reap the rewards to ensure and secure their profits.

The cycle is simple – develop, patent and sell. But, if there was more done at the “develop” stage to cure hay fever instead of lessen its effects short-term, then that would be welcomed. Better result for us sufferers.

Who knows, I’d maybe pay a huge one-off premium just to get some longer term relief. Maybe there is a business model after all for the drug companies… one not to be sniffed at.

Jim Duffy MBE, Create Special.