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    PBS bites biotech


    After the International Genetics Congress it seems ungrateful to inject some reality into the debate, but someone needs to.

    Biotechnology is doing what Star Trek promised, boldly going where mankind has never gone before, solving mysteries that truly mimic the wisdom of God, or whatever Supreme Force breathed life into the universe.

    Anytime in the near future, we’ll have diagnostics to detect with precision the day that I will experience the first mutation of what becomes a cancer, and customised treatments that will allow my body to cure itself. And the people will thank the Lord and shower His corporate scientists with riches.

    At least, that’s the message that I heard at the Congress.

    Is it rude to ask, ‘Who will pay the piper?’ or ‘Who will reimburse the recombinator?’ There is an assumption that government will ultimately write the cheques the same way it bankrolls prescription drugs for the masses.

    Two words: ‘Fat chance!’

    Governments worldwide are struggling to pay for life-saving medicines that are mass produced, maximising manufacturing efficiency. Customised genetic medicine will be to health budgets what the Great Flood was to Noah’s veggie patch.

    Which government is rushing to invest in early detection – filling their hospitals to peak capacity with people seeking costly surgery? Is that why the trial programs for colorectal cancer screening still haven’t started four years after funding was announced in May 1999?

    Ask yourself what the pharmaceutical industry would look like if governments just stopped subsidising medicines and left it to the private market? ‘Who will pay?’ was the wall that the dot.com go-cart hit in 2000, and it brought the online world back to earth with a shuddering emphasis on fundamentals like revenue.

    Let’s ask that question now before innocent biotech investors get burned.

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