Friday, August 20, 2010

impure to PATIENTS, pure to CHEMISTS

Many scholars have doubted Big Pharma kept its word back in the Fall of 1941, when a dozen of its firms each promised to brew up hundreds (or even thousands) of liters of penicillin juice every week , so  penicillin could start flowing into dying patients' veins.

Because all throughout 1942,one of the worse years of the war for the Allied cause, very very few patients or soldiers seemed to get any of the life-saving  stuff.

I may stand alone - even stand naive - in believing the drug companies' pledge.

But I admit that I also read the fine print in that promise - the drug companies would indeed seed all that raw penicillin juice flasks that they had promised, but not "all" of the resulting penicillin would go to the patients - only "some" of it would.

In April 1943, GLAXO patted itself on the back and said it was the largest penicillin producer in the world.

It probably was.

But NONE, zilch, zero, zip of that world-beating supply was going to the soldiers, sailors, airmen or civilians that month.

Let see, that meant no penicillin for all the burn victims of the HMS Dasher disaster or for the people crushed in the Bethnal Green Tube disaster and no penicillin for the American wounded in the Battle for Bougainville.

So where was all the penicillin going that was produced in Glaxo's Aylesbury and Greenford plants?

It was all off to the chemists at Glaxo and Wellcome, to be degraded and destroyed in their ongoing attempts to achieve total synthesis of penicillin.

I hear a lot of chat that "we couldn't get any penicillin for my mother during WWII because the military had it all" but this was never so.

The military at the frontline hospitals frequently made its own unofficial and unrefined penicillin when it got tired of the scientists back home trying to perfect artificial penicillin.

Pulvertaft did it for the British Army in Cairo - he taught the nearby Royal Air Force to do likewise and the Canadian Army in Italy took up his idea.

Back in Britain, the Royal Navy under Green set up its own unofficial penicillin plant using Gordon Gin bottles instead of Glaxo's Bonny Baby milk bottles - gin bottles of which they had a great deal of, for some reason ( joke !)

Out west in Utah, US Army major Frank Queen started trying to make his own penicillin.

 He was tired of seeing boys from Guadalcanal still lying about with rotting bone
infections, ten months after they were first wounded and evacuated, with sulfa drugs only making them vomit rather than killing off their infections.

The military always said and acted upon, "a bird in the hand today is worth a million birds in the hand tomorrow" - they were only interested in technology that could be mass produced for this war, preferable this year.

General Grove always insisted he had to be a brute, because if you give scientists a pile of money and equipment and no one to ride herd on them, they will always go for the most interesting scientific problems but not deliver anything 'good enough' in time to be useful.

In other words, the better the scientist, the worse the engineer - they are not deadline or budget oriented by nature - they need a firm hand.

The military finally did plump for natural penicillin - produced in mushroom farms if that got the job done - rather than wait for the chemists.

The military's decision to demand natural penicillin now,ironically, got badly needed penicillin into the veins of dying civilians as well.

I think all the firms were guilty of this.

 Florey was not alone in getting raw penicillin juice instead of semi-purified dry penicillin from one company he was cooperating with (Kemball-Bishop). That meant he had to purify the penicillin he needed for patient trials.

Dawson got penicillin juice from Pfizer, starting back in October 1941.

But not till five months later did he get semi purified penicillin from them.

When he asked, back in November 1941, he was told all the pure stuff Pfizer could produce and more was going to Pfizer's Doctor Walton J Smith - if Dawson wanted some pure penicillin ,he could purify it himself from the raw juice.

Doctor Smith was not an MD - he was a PhD in Chemistry - an organic chemist - he set about degrading and destroying the purest stuff that Pfizer could produce, while Dawson's patients got the impure stuff.

Kemball-Bishop, a partner of Pfizer, did the same to Florey in the fall of 1942.

Now Pfizer and Kemball-Bishop were fermentation experts, not really drug companies.

If they, the most biologically-oriented of any of the firms involved in penicillin, were hell-bent on creating synthetic penicillin from the very beginning, how much more so the chemically-oriented firms like Merck and Squibb and ICI ?

It is a Big Lie, in the most accurate sense of that word, to say the search for pure penicillin was done for the patients' benefit.

Many dying patients, in a frontline dugout or in a SBE ward, would have settled for any kind of penicillin now, over a promise of perfectly pure artificial penicillin for the lucky patients who came along long after they themselves died for lack of help.

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