Big Pharma & Big Homeo: Titans will clash, and ducks will die.

There has been much talk of homeopathy in the media in the past few days. I want to pick up on one point that is being brought up by homeopathy believers everywhere at the moment in response to any criticism.
 

"But Big Pharma has many problems! Just read Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre!"

There are a few reasons why this is an utterly terrible argument.

The Logical Fallacy

This is not a two option scenario, so this is a false dilemma. homeopathic supporters are attempting to suggest that because Big Pharma has its problems, homeopathy is a better alternative. But here's the problem: These are not the only options in the world. Big Pharma does have massive, endemic problems, but that bears no resemblance to whether or not homeopathy works. Even if there were no evidence that any conventional medicine works ever, there still wouldn't be any evidence that homeopathy works either.

There's definitely an element of a "You too!" fallacy here as well. Big Pharma has its problems, but this is no reason to expect anything less than impeccable ethics from any other sector. 

The Misleading Rustic Image

Homeopathic manufacturers would very much like us to have a fluffy, warm, reassuring image in our heads of some nice, compassionate people making a tincture from plants, shaking it in a special way, and making a nice, safe medicine from it. In actual fact, the image is rather more grubby, with diseased body parts, conventional medicines, and limbs being used in the manufacture. Oscillococciinum, supposedly the most popular homeopathic remedy for flu, involves killling a muscovy duck and using its heart and liver to produce a mother tincture. I wonder if folks who are against animal testing and the likes in the pharmaceutical industry are aware of this fact? For the purposes of this blog post, lets call our duck Dave

A Muscovy Duck Named Dave

A Muscovy Duck Named Dave

Homeopathy is not usually made by ethical practitioners in their kitchens. And frankly, if it were, i'd be pretty concerned about hygeine etc and would be wanting inspectors to go round to check it. Its mainly made by large companies who are ultimately concerned with profits. In fact, until very recently, New Era homeopathic products (ooh, sounds all new age-y and nice and hopeful, doesn't it?) were made by Merck (Sounds-and indeed is- a pretty damn large corporate pharmaceutical company).

We also know from the FDA that homeopathic manufacturers can be less than meticulous to say the least in their standards. Broken glass? That's not a problem, just leave it there on the production line, no one will mind. More info on this story can be found at The Quackometer
 

The Massive Mark Up Margins

Pharmaceutical companies spend a HUGE amount on research and development of new drugs. First they have to employ people to find a new chemical entity, whether that be in the rainforest or in the lab. Then they have to find out if it works, which involves a huge amount of lab work. If that seems postive, they then have to do trials, which is hugely expensive. At any of these stages, there is a huge likelihood of failure and it is a very, very small minority of new chemical entities that actually get through to a stage where they can be marketed. At that point, price margins can be pretty damn high, which is in part to cover all of those R&D costs. Yes, there are also huge profits that are made in the pharmaceutical industry, and there are all the associated problems covered in Bad Pharma. This is certainly not an ideal scenario, but at least at the end of the day we are left with some drugs that work.

Big Homeo, on the other hand, puts little-if any- funds into research and development. If it did, we would have a load more trials than we do now. The work in drug discovery has been done for them, by Hahnemann et al who have written Materia Medica and the likes. So not many outgoings there then.

What about the costs of the ingredients? Well sugar is cheap, as is water. And even if your mother tincture comes from a valuable substance, you can make a hell of a lot of homeopathic medicine from it. Here is the recipe for Boiron's Oscillococcinum (according to Wikipedia)

  • Active ingredient: Anas Barbariae Hepatis et Cordis Extractum (extract ofMuscovy Duck liver and heart) 200CK HPUS 1×10−400 g[9]

  • Inactive ingredient: 0.85 g sucrose0.15 g lactose (100% sugar.[10])

So to make 1 gram of oscillococcinum, you only need 1×10−400g of extract of poor Dave's heart and liver. This is a ridiculously tiny amount, and as you will hopefully now know, there will be VERY VERY VERY little chance of any of Dave's molecules remaining in the resulting solution. 

I have no idea how much the heart and liver of Wor Duckie Dave would weigh. I also have no idea how much an extract made from him would cost. I'm guessing, however, that the number of packs of homeopathic pills I could make from his unfortunate organs would mean it is very, very lucrative, and I would be laughing all the way to the bank with my profits were I a company with few scruples about selling nonsense to vulnerable people. 
 

The Pointlessness Of It All

Poor Dave. Dave has been killed to make a medicine. However, none of Dave's molecules actually make it into that medicine in the end, because it has been diluted to such extremes. There's no memory of Dave in the water or sugar left in the medicine, only in the minds of his little duckie friends and his family who miss him dearly. There are huge outcries about bear bile being collected for use in chinese traditional medicines- why is no one speaking out for Dave?

At the end of the day, evidence suggests that after all the sacrificing, succussing, potentization, and all the other fancy words they use for magic rituals, what we are left with is an inert sugar pill.We could have saved ourselves all the bother, and saved Dave's life, if we just made an inert sugar pill in the first place and didn't bother with all the pretending. 

Won't anyone think of the ducks?