Book Review: Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America

Long before coronavirus, Gerald Posner began writing Pharma.

Health Ministry inspectors speak with a woman who is in self quarantine as a precaution against coronavirus spread in Hadera, Israel March 16, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/RONEN ZEVULUN)
Health Ministry inspectors speak with a woman who is in self quarantine as a precaution against coronavirus spread in Hadera, Israel March 16, 2020
You know the old saying: Timing is everything. That is certainly the case with author Gerald Posner, whose new book, Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America, came out this week, with one of its chapters titled “The Coming Pandemic.”
Now 65, Posner has worked on the book for years. Of course, when he began the project in 2015, he’d never heard of COVID-19.
In his case, “I’d much rather be talking about the Sacklers [the family that reaped billions from manufacturing pharmaceuticals] or opioids or what can be done in Washington to fix the problem.”
And yet, his penultimate chapter ends with an infectious disease expert saying that when it comes to the coming pandemic, “it’s a question of when, not if.”
It reminds him of growing up in San Francisco, where people lived with the fear that “the big one” would one day leave a lasting jolt, scaling 8 or 9 on the Richter scale, killing thousands.
Posner says scientists did indeed tell him that when it comes to pandemics, “the big one” is all but guaranteed. And, yes, it might even rival the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which infected nearly 30% of the world’s population (more than 500 million people), and killed some 50 million.
Fate could produce a moment where, Posner says, “you get some novel virus or pathogen that could wipe out 10% of the planet and shake up the world. Will it be COVID-19? I have no idea.”
As Pharma illustrates so graphically, there are indeed “new microbes for which there is little natural immunity, and the first year,” Posner says, “is always the worst.”
As his wife and fellow author and researcher, Patricia Posner (The Pharmacist of Auschwitz: The Untold Story), sagely points out, in her husband’s words, “What makes this one different and a little scarier is social media. It’s the first pandemic we’ve ever gone through with social media.” So, instead of turning to Facebook for what your “friends” might be saying about a new play, movie or restaurant, we’re all getting whipped by a mounting fear about COVID-19.
From the standpoint of having written a potential bestseller, Posner does concede that the timing of Pharma is extraordinary. And yet, the coming pandemic was never meant to be its raison d’etre.
“I originally wanted to do a history of the American pharmaceutical industry,” he says. “I tended to underestimate what that entailed,” he adds with a laugh. “I now know that no one has tried to do a single-volume history of the American pharmaceutical history.”
And yet, he did it. Then again, Posner has always tackled difficult subjects. He wrote a biography of the infamous Nazi Josef Mengele, the so-called “Angel of Death.” He took on the Vatican and its finances in God’s Bankers. But the one that forever ties him to Dallas is Case Closed, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that builds a compelling case that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy.
Reviewing Pharma for Literary Hub, critic John Freeman writes, “Posner has created a medical leviathan for our times.”
Posner says he once considered titling the book Pills, Profits and Pandemics. Pandemics are germane to Pharma, with Posner saying the experts he interviewed “have all blamed the drug industry. We had 36 companies making antibiotics in 1980. Now, there are six. They’ve all left the field, because they’re making more money for drugs to address chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cholesterol. Antibiotics are given for five to seven days. There’s just not enough money in them.”
So, between that and antibiotic resistance, “they’ve opened the door for what will be a super germ one day.”
Case Closed was an education in learning the lessons he applied in Pharma. Whereas previous authors who had tackled Big Pharma concentrated on freedom of information requests filed with the Federal Drug Administration, Posner took a cue from researching the Kennedy assassination and filed his with the FBI.
What he got back, he says, was “a treasure trove.”
As it turns out, the FBI had investigated the Sacklers as far back as the 1960s, when they were, in Posner’s words, “hardline leftists.” One had been a “card-carrying member of the Communist Party.”
They had moved from being “to the far Left of Bernie [Sanders] to becoming shining examples of capitalism.”
Raymond Sackler founded Purdue Pharma with his brothers Arthur M. Sackler and Mortimer Sackler. Purdue Pharma is the developer of OxyContin, which on the federal level alone has triggered more than 1,600 lawsuits against Purdue Pharma, with many naming members of the Sackler family.
Plaintiffs cite a widespread over-prescription of pharmaceuticals, in particular OxyContin, putting Purdue Pharma at the epicenter of the opioid epidemic.
If all of that sounds like big stuff, Posner admits preferring “projects of wide scope and ambition. I’m silly enough to think that I can tackle them and get through them.”
He recalls once getting advice from acclaimed New York Times writer Ralph Blumenthal, who told him, “Just find a simple murder case and write about it.” So, months later, he called Blumenthal and said, “Ralph, I’m doing a murder story.”
“What is it?” Blumenthal asked.
“The Kennedy assassination,” Posner replied.
“You’ve lost your mind,” Blumenthal said. ■ (The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
By Gerald Posner
Avid Reader Press
816 pages; $35