Taking on Big Pharma

Where Corporate Excess Meets Medical Ethics

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Pfefferkorn, through his association with AMSA, was contacted in 2007 by Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a nonprofit association founded by medical, law and other students to ensure that university research is used to benefit populations in need. The association said Abbott had withdrawn seven of its medications from the Thailand market, including Zemplar, in retaliation for the country’s decision to essentially allow the licensing of generic equivalents of several very expensive HIV, cancer and heart disease drugs. One of the drugs was Abbott’s.

WARF resisted pressure from Pfefferkorn, AMSA and the researcher who developed the drug, refusing to denounce Abbott in any way. It publicly described the pharma as “a good friend of WARF and the university, particularly in the hiring of UW graduates.” A week after WARF rejected the entreaties, Pfefferkorn received seven e-mails from Thai citizens who expressed their thanks and concerns after reading about the effort in their local newspaper.

“In our initial campaign we went all the way to the chancellor,” Pfefferkorn says. “In the fall we came back at it. We had a poster campaign, and I gave a couple of presentations. From the time WARF said no, it was our job to make sure everyone knew they said no.” The campaign to make the withdrawn drugs available to Thais attracted attention from the Boston Globe, the Chronicle of Higher Education and others. Pfefferkorn later presented his findings to the APHA. But ultimately the drive was unsuccessful. “We had pressure from the Universities Allied for Essential Medicines to be aggressive and assertive,” Pfefferkorn says. “We felt like that was not the way to do things in the Midwest. Maybe we should have been more aggressive."


PFEFFERKORN does not look or sound like a firebrand. He is soft-spoken, engaging and unassuming. But his idealism is strong, his ethics unfailing. He says the emphasis on ethics at Susquehanna, now a keystone of the Central Curriculum, helped shape him.

"I am still trying to respond to the challenge that Dr. Simona Hill laid out in a seminar I took during my junior year on The Cultural Roles of African-American Women. She stated explicitly in her syllabus that she wanted to make us ‘agents of change in a predominantly white world.’ I think of Dr. Hill anytime I am told that something is unchangeable.”

Recalling Pfefferkorn, Hill, a professor of sociology, says, “I prayed when he was an undergraduate that he would not lose his edge. I’m just so amazed that he still has the enthusiasm.”

Pfefferkorn also says having the opportunity at Susquehanna to pursue whatever struck his fancy prepared him well. “My time at Susquehanna provided me with a broad-based, liberal arts education that challenged me to think outside my chosen field of biology.” He participated in an assistantship at the Writers Institute, wrote for The Crusader, started an essay magazine, played in the symphonic band, was a member of the Honors Program and designed a seminar on Centralia with biology professor Margaret Peeler.

Kate Hastings, associate professor of communications, who is the faculty adviser for The Crusader, says that she recruited Pfefferkorn to be online editor of the newspaper. “Every once in a while you get a person who is so mature and comfortable in his own skin. Branden came to us as a great student and a great person, and we just didn’t wreck him.”

What’s ahead for Pfefferkorn is family medicine. But he also wants to put his public health degree to use. He splits his time now between a hospital setting and a federally supported health clinic in Seattle that serves primarily an American Indian and low-income population. He believes that as a physician he can make a difference one patient at a time, but in the field of public health he can make systemic changes that affect whole communities. That’s where his heart is.

Gerald S. Cohen is associate vice president and chief communications officer for Susquehanna University.

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