Opioid fight could be as successful as battle against AIDS if done right

Governor Chris Christie, chairman of the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, joins Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Francis Collins, President, Chief Executive Officer of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) Stephen J. Ubl and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Deputy Commissioner Anna Abram speak to the press after a roundtable discussion with leaders of the pharmaceutical industry, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to advance a public-private partnership that can address America’s epidemic of addiction while at the War Memorial in Trenton, N.J. on Monday, Sept. 18, 2017. (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

Responding to public clamor in the 1990s, some of the nation’s drug companies worked together to develop a “cocktail” of drugs to fight HIV/AIDS. It worked. AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence. Now, the National Institutes of Health and Gov. Chris Christie, who chairs the president’s opioid commission, want to do the same thing to fight addiction.

Christie announced the plan Monday, with pharmaceutical-industry representatives, federal health officials, commission members and presidential aide Kellyanne Conway at his side.

The announcement was part of a week of planned activities to highlight the fight against opioid addiction (and, of course, Christie’s role in that fight). On Tuesday in Newark, Christie said he plans to spend an additional $200 million in New Jersey on addiction and the shocking increase in overdose deaths. The money would be siphoned from eight state departments, he said.

Encouraging the drug companies to work together in the kind of public-private partnership that helped develop HIV/AIDS medications is a fine idea. Representatives from 14 drug companies attended Christie’s announcement in Trenton, and NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins said there was “nearly unanimous agreement” about the idea of breaking down the companies’ individual silos and sharing information under the coordination of the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration. The NIH and the FDA have been working on the plan since June.

Christie said the pharmaceutical companies plan to share approximately 40 compounds that could play a role in safe, nonaddictive pain medications. The partnership will also work to develop better medications to treat addicts and to revive those who have overdosed.

Meanwhile, despite promising to do so, President Donald Trump has yet to issue a formal emergency declaration regarding the opioid epidemic. Such a declaration was a key component of the interim report issued this summer by the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. The emergency declaration would quickly free up more federal funds to fight addiction.

Christie said he still expects the president to follow through on the declaration despite objections from some in the administration. Let’s hope so.

The problem, as always, is politics. Political considerations certainly delayed the nation’s response to AIDS, which at its onset was believed to affect mostly homosexuals and drug users. There was an undercurrent of “why help them?” Today, those addicted to heroin and other opioids often don’t get much sympathy either, despite the fact that opioid addiction is now rampant in cities and suburbs and among the poor and the rich.

And, frankly, we see partisan politics in the opposition among some to this public-private partnership to fight opioid addiction. These critics note that Big Pharma is facing investigations in several states over promotional and marketing practices that allegedly encouraged doctors to prescribe opioids. The profit motive is simply too great for these companies to fight addiction now, let alone work together to do it, the critics say.

Maybe. Drug companies do, after all, have to make profits. But let’s give this new public-private partnership a chance (for what it’s worth, Christie also has proposed new rules to rein in what drug companies can dole out to doctors in lavish meals and speaking fees). The attempt to score political points usually cures nothing. This new initiative just might cure something big.