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October 19, 2019; WGN-TV

How many times does the same point need to be made? When it comes to much of medical care, and in particular in the production of pharmaceuticals, working from a profit motive doesn’t work to many patients’ benefit. The business decisions of medical manufacturers often make direly needed drugs scarce. This story concerns the generic drug vincristine, a standard treatment for childhood leukemia, lymphoma, and bone and brain cancers. Many pediatric cancer treatment centers are facing a shortage that’s expected to last through the end of the year.

“It is an essential drug in almost all of our pediatric cancers,” said pediatric oncologist Dr. Jong Hee Chung. “It’s very unfortunate that a shortage like this would occur.”

The nonprofit Children’s Oncology Group says such shortages of life-saving drugs should never happen, especially because the treatment is remarkably cheap. A vial of vincristine costs around $5. But there’s not much profit there, so why bother? If the health of the children who need the drug were prized more highly, the picture might be very different.

Situations like these were the impetus behind Civica Rx, a collaboration between major hospitals to make sure drugs of this kind can be produced to meet the need. We last wrote about this effort in May, when the project had 14 drugs scheduled for production; perhaps vincristine should be added to the list. Regardless, there remain some industries where the profitmaking bottom-line works to the detriment of the most vulnerable among us, and this is one of them.—Ruth McCambridge