Withholding the Cure

Good news! There is finally a cure for that horrible disease. Too bad the cure is owned by Peace & Love, Incorporated, who refuse to distribute it because they believe they can squeeze more money out of people who remain sick, or by the evil overlord who wants the people to die off so he can move in and occupy the land.

Withholding the Cure is when the cure really works and it is what people really need, but someone is keeping it from people for their own selfish reasons.

Compare and contrast Manufacturing Victims, which involves therapists keeping their patients in therapy. Then there's withholding medication to keep people in therapy, or withholding therapy to keep people on medication, both of which can be Truth in Television: In Real Life, some people need medication, some need therapy, some need a combination of both, and many need neither.

Sub-Trope of Information Wants to Be Free. Contrast Poison-and-Cure Gambit, where the villains are usually more than happy to distribute the cure (for a far-from-modest fee, of course), but in any case created the demand for the cure by starting the actual disease!

As you may know, this trope is one of the biggest conspiracy theories in American culture: the belief that "Big Pharma" has developed cures for AIDS, cancer,note  the common cold, and so on, but would rather sell treatments that don't actually cure anything just to maximize profits. This assumes that all countries in the world use the American healthcare model, even though countries with socialized medicine like Canada and the UK are very much interested in cures for chronic ailments to reduce the tax burden their systems create. Within the US, it assumes the people working within Big Pharma are simply saving these cures for themselves and their families, even though rich people die from cancer and other illnesses all the time. The people who push this theory the most are either not very knowledgeable about the subject, or they're trying to sell you something themselves. For the sake of cautious editing, no Real Life examples unless you have documentation, aside from media reports on people's perceptions.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Wapol of One Piece, during his reign of Drum Island, removed as many doctors he could find from his kingdom, save his own personal staff of 20. If any citizen needed medical attention, they had to beg him for it.
  • The first season of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex deals with this in the form of the Murai Vaccine, a cure for an otherwise-incurable disease called cyberbrain sclerosis, and the various conspiracies at work to keep the vaccine from being approved for the general public in favor of Nanomachine-based treatments - ineffective ones that nonetheless serve as excellent test cases for technologies that help Japan Takes Over the World. One such is a subversion of the Enhance Button. Worst part? Corrupt Corporate Executives and Corrupt Politicians use it freely in secrecy, saving themselves while using the citizenry as guinea pigs.
    • This story arc is based on the Maruyama Vaccine, an actual series of events that occurred in Japan in the 1960-70's.
  • Highlander: The Search for Vengeance has this as one of the hero's main annoyances, behind the killing of his wife.

    Comic Books 
  • In the Marvel Universe:
    • Wakanda (the home nation of the Black Panther) has had the cure for cancer for centuries but refuses to release it, at least when written by Reginald Hudlin.
    • Norman Osborn also has the cure for cancer. He ends up weaponizing it when a pissed-off Deadpool comes gunning for him after Osborn steals his victory in Secret Invasion.
    • Doctor Doom apparently has a good method of treating burn victims, which he's withholding because he's ... well ... Doom. In X-Men vs The Fantastic Four, he uses it on Storm after she was grievously injured in a fight with the Human Torch in order to endear himself to the X-Men, but it's never been seen since. X-Men ally Dr. Moira MacTaggart even wonders why he just sits on this medical breakthrough when it can be used to help millions.
    • In Doctor Strange: The Oath, Doc retrieves a magical elixir that has the power to "erase what troubles the mind of man", hoping it can save Wong's life. It turns out to be the Cure for Cancer (and everything else), which causes a corrupt pharmaceuticals company to send an assassin to shoot Strange and steal the elixir. For extra points, Wong is dying of cancer and being kept alive with "Timelozar", which is manufactured solely by "Timely Pharmaceuticals", the exact same company that sent the assassin.
    • Conqueror from the Future the Scarlet Centurion has cured cancer, and offers it to Squadron Supreme member, Tom Thumb in exchange for poisoning fellow team member, Hyperion. He refuses and the Centurion gets a chuckle out of the torment he caused.
    • C-list character Cardiac became a vigilante/superhero when his brother died because of corporations using this policy.
    • On a lighter note, when Reed Richards of The Fantastic Four was messing around with calculations one day, he stumbled on a permanent cure for acne. Revlon and a dozen other companies are paying him dumptrucks full of money not to release it.
  • The Invisibles has, as one of its many conspiracy subplots, the agents of the Conspiracy being in full possession of the AIDS vaccine... which they engineered before they released AIDS into the world, so that they could chart its influence among "target populations."
  • Following Superboy's return to the land of the living in Final Crisis, he believes that Lex Luthor does have a shred of humanity left in him and seeks to bring it out by helping him cure his ailing sister. He does so, lets her enjoy her freedom... then restores her illness, promising that, as long as Superman lives, no one gets what he can create.
  • TAO of Wild CA Ts claims to have the cures for AIDS and all forms of cancer, as well as a genetic patent on a strain of corn that will end world hunger forever. He uses these as bargaining chips when he gets in trouble. Majestic doesn't care.

  • In Johnny Mnemonic, the world is in the grips of a pandemic, and an evil drug company that went through all the time and trouble to research, develop, and test a working cure for the pandemic doesn't want anybody to have it, and is chasing after the title character in order to suppress information on the cure that's locked in his Neuro-Vault. As long as the cure is suppressed, the evil drug company keeps making billions off "Paralon-B"—the watered-down cure—as "treating the disease is more profitable than curing it."
    • The evil drug company even goes so far as to deny the cure to its own top executives, so at least they were consistent.
  • In Mission: Impossible II, a good scientist spliced countless influenza viruses together into a super-influenza as part of the process of creating a universal cure for influenza. That worked out perfectly, and would have been worth billions. Unfortunately, he didn't realize he was working for an Evil Drug Company. They realized that his superflu would be worth hundreds of billions to the right buyer and that a superflu outbreak would make a universal cure worth trillions. Cue gunfights.
  • In the 2001 Dean Cain movie Phase IV, investigation on some mysterious murders leads to the discovery that a laboratory had discovered a cure for AIDS, but decided to murder everyone involved to keep selling existing treatments.
  • In Ultraviolet, demonizing hemophages as monsters instead of treating them as victims of disease enabled the Evil Drug Company has become the "Militant Medical Establishment" known as the ArchMinistry. Unfortunately, they did too good a job of hunting them and, by the time of the movie, needed a new threat to "protect" the world from — a "human antigen", cultivated inside of a Living MacGuffin. Once it's released, people will have to line up at ArchMinistry to get the cure or die. Cue Gun Kata.

  • In Abarat, Christopher Carrion withheld a cure for a beast boy's condition in return for the boy's unwavering loyalty.
  • Opal Koboi in Artemis Fowl does this.
  • In Oryx and Crake, Crake pulls this one on the entire world, creating a wildly contagious hemorrhagic virus which he then implanted in supplement pills. He had the cure (and had indeed ensured that at least one person was immune to the virus) but had no plans to distribute it, since his Evil Plan hinged on most or all of the human race dying.
  • In Poison Study, Yelena is poisoned early on with something called Butterfly's Dust that will kill her if she doesn't get a daily dose of the antidote from her keeper. This turns out to be made up, though.
  • Subverted in The Lake at the End of the World. The Counselor tries to do this to Diana in order to get her to supply him with the equipment needed to dump poison into a nearby lake, but the community doctor gives Diana the full course of medication anyway.
  • Used in Cinder by Marissa Meyer, and quite cruelly at that, by the Lunar Queen Levana. There is a plague sweeping Prince Kai's kingdom, infecting thousands and thousands of people, including his own father, the Emperor. Just hours after his father's death (which was slow and painful) Levana arrives, offering one vial of the antidote — just enough to cure one adult male. She offers her sincerest sympathies that she arrived just a little too late for the cure to save Kai's father. She continues to withhold it as a way of forcing Kai to marry her and subsequently giving her control of his kingdom. Making it even worse, the Lunars are the ones responsible for the plague in the first place, albeit unintentionally, a fact of which Levana is well aware.
  • In the Lionboy trilogy, the Corporation kidnaps Charlie's parents because they've discovered a cure for asthma, which there's a world-wide epidemic of, and the Corporation makes a killing off of selling inhalers to people.
  • In Michael Moorcock's The Elric Saga, the hero is an otherwise sickly and weak albino who needs exotic drugs or the dread sword Stormbringer to live. In one story, the villain Yyrkoon keeps him prisoner and withholds both the drugs and access to the Sword for the sheer pleasure of watching his nemesis sicken and die.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: Inverted. Littlefinger is practically stuffing the "curing" medication down little Robert Arryn's neck via a Maester (or using the poor guy as camouflage) in a bid to fully control when to kill him with it under the cover of helping him. The Vale is, unknowingly, being held to ransom as a result. Remember, folks: too much of an otherwise good thing is often bad.

    Live-Action TV 
  • There was an episode of Barney Miller where the perp was a research scientist who had destroyed the property of his former employers because they refused to let him research the cure for [some disease] on the grounds that it wasn't fatal and there were too few sufferers for a cure to be profitable. Barney managed to talk his former boss into dropping charges and rehiring the guy, partly with the argument that by the time the cure was developed there may be an epidemic, "with any luck".
  • In the Bonanza episode "My brother's keeper", Hoss rides into town to get the life-saving medicine for his brother Joe. On his way home, Hoss is ambushed by some thugs who hold the medicine for ransom.
  • In Continuum's first season finale, the pharmaceutical industry executives Kagame targets in the season finale were meeting to do this, along with price-fixing.
  • Doctor Who: In "Dalek", the villain brags about having discovered a cure for the common cold — which he isn't going to give to anyone, as it gets him more money if he just sells the existing medication.
  • The Syfy film Do or Die has the Big Bad running a corporation that is hailed as heroic for finding a cure for an aging disease, but they still love to ration it or jack up the price all the time.
  • Invoked in Empire. With Lucious desperate for a cure for his impending ALS, he approaches a "doctor" who claims to have developed a treatment that can cure ALS, but his research has been suppressed by the US government due to this trope. Needless to say, the charlatan skipped town with Lucious' money before the latter realized that the phony treatment was only making him sicker.
  • Merlin (2008) Uther does this when Merlin is poisoned, intent on teaching Arthur a lesson.
  • Played with in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Symbiosis": the Ornarans claim they need felicium to treat a plague that is affecting their world. Their only source of it is through the Brekkians, and this is the only commerce between the worlds. Dr. Crusher determines that the felicium is an addictive narcotic and that the plague has long been cured. While the Prime Directive forbids Picard from revealing the truth to the wronged race, he finds a way to correct the situation by refusing to repair their few remaining ships. Without the ships, they will have no way to get the drug and will eventually realize they're not actually sick.
  • Star Trek: Enterprise: "Dear Doctor": Archer decides to let an entire species die from a disease that Phlox could cure so that another race on the planet could have an "evolutionary breakthrough."
  • This trope is played ridiculously straight in the final season of True Blood. In the previous season, a deadly virus that only affects vampires ("Hepatitis V") is released and threatens the entire vampire community including the regular cast. In the final season, the company that produces TruBlood (the artificial blood beverage that allows vampires to subsist without preying on humans) develops a cure for Hep V, but their corrupt CEO realizes he can make more money by selling a temporary vaccine through TruBlood. When Eric kills him and takes over the company, it's unknown if he keeps up the charade or releases the real cure. Given his...complicated morality, it can go either way.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Hc Svnt Dracones a division of Spyglass known as Progenitus discovered that the pharmaceutical corporations of the time had been suppressing cheap cures for practically everything in order to sell expensive treatments. They went public, and started producing the cures themselves. Four centuries later Progenitus is the one and only medical Mega Corp. in the solar system, guaranteeing Perfect Health for a low monthly fee, no differently from a cell service.

    Video Games 
  • In Dead Rising 2, Zombie Infectees can indefinitely delay their transformation into zombies via daily doses of Zombrex. There are accusations that the Evil Drug Company that makes the drug is working to prevent a cure from being discovered for economic and political power. They're actually causing bi-yearly outbreaks to ensure a steady supply of the parasitic wasps used to make the drug - this also causes the uninfected to stockpile the drug, driving up their stock price. Cue gunfight.
  • This is one of many conspiracies present in Deus Ex - taken Up to Eleven as the people who control the treatment also created the plague.
    • The prequel, Human Revolution has an variation. The company VersaLife, the same front company who distributed the vaccine to Grey Death in the original, makes Neuropozyne, a drug that prevents the human body rejecting mechanical augmentations. It is the only drug known to do this, meaning it is necessary to most augmented people and as a result had made the company a lot of money. The company is controlled by the Illuminati, who use the drug as a measure of control. Sarif Industries have discovered an implantable material based on the biology of the protagonist, Adam Jensen, that may render Neuropozyne obsolete, so the Illuminati have the research labs destroyed and scientists involved kidnapped to prevent their control being challenged. These actions kick start the events of the game. By the end it is revealed that one of the scientists involved also works on the Grey Death from the original.
  • In Crackdown 2, the Agency is secretly withholding the cure to the Freak virus and Catalina Thorne is trying to pressure them to release it. However, the Agency refuses to release it because it would depower their Agents.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: The Sith keep the rakghoul cure to themselves so their troops can walk around the Undercity without opposition. Your character encounters a pack with some serum in it, as a patrol got ambushed and eaten by the beasts. You now have the option to give it to an Upper City doctor who will make it cheaply available for everyone or hand it over to a crime boss's middleman. It'll be available, just so ridiculously expensive the people who would benefit can't afford it.
  • Fallout 3: The Pitt (post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh) is an irradiated city where the slaves all suffer from a horrible disease while the one in charge holds the cure but refuses to share it, though it turns out that the cure is his own infant daughter who was born with immunity; the reason he's withholding it is because he doesn't want to hurt her for the sake of the cure. The Lone Wanderer has the choice of siding with the tyrant in charge or a rebel leader to free the slaves and take the cure.
  • Batman: Arkham City: Batman has Mr. Freeze synthesize a cure for Joker's Titan-poisoned blood, but Freeze destroys the first vial and threatens Batman that he'll destroy the rest if he doesn't rescue Nora from the Joker.
    • In the ending, Batman seemingly considers this due to the unstoppable cycle of prison breaks and deaths Joker always causes. Batman was willing to give him the cure, but Joker stabbed Bats on the shoulder before revealing this. This results in Batman dropping and accidentally destroying the cure. Joker blames Batman for this, but finds the fact that Bats was ready to cure him humorous, and dies laughing. As there were no witnesses, most thugs in Gotham believe that Batman withheld the cure on purpose.
    • In the Season of Infamy DLC in Batman: Arkham Knight, players can choose to let Ra's die by destroying the last Lazarus on earth.
  • In the bizarre 1998 point-and-click game Sanitarium it is eventually revealed that the Big Bad doctor Morgan attempted to kill the protagonist due to the latter discovering a cure to a deadly child-killing disease, one that Morgan's MERCy corporation was very profitably treating.

    Web Comics 

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • The Tuskegee syphilis experiment. A clinical study run by the US government for fifty years on the progression of syphilis in southern Blacks. When the study started, it involved treating syphilis with an expensive and not-very-effective treatment. When the funding got reduced, they couldn't afford the treatment. Instead, they just continued to study the patients, while telling them they were being treated so they could study the progression of the disease, without informing them exactly what they had. Then, during the course of the study, a cheap and effective cure (penicillin) became available, but the doctors in charge realized that curing the patients would put an end to their research. Not only did they withhold treatment, but they refused to tell the subjects what they were sick with, allowing the disease to spread in the process. This pretty much destroyed any future attempts at using science to justify racism. It showed that black people also were affected by the disease exactly the same that white people were. Before this, it was almost accepted that white people were medically different from black people and therefore superior or such nonsense.
  • Many a real-life company has been accused of this, and it does happen, but for two separate reasons;
    • Not so diabolically, after the clusterfuck that was Thalidomide being rushed to market without research about potential side effects, a lot of countries made strict laws about medical testing. So a potential cure must go through years and countless batteries of tests before it can even be approved for humans. And if they give the experimental drug to a person with a lethal disease and they die, that gets counted as a death caused from the drug. So that results in even more tests and more years to get to market.
    • More of an inspiration for the trope is the simple economic fact that drugs that suppress symptoms while leaving the body to fight a disease on its own are both cheaper to make and can be sold more often than outright cures—especially as many such symptoms are actually the body's effort to fight the disease; for example, cold "medicine" suppresses coughing and sneezing, but this is meant to eject contaminants from the body in phlegm and mucus. Suppressing it makes colds last longer—and conveniently, buy more cold "medicine". Same with fevers; an attempt by the body to literally burn out an infection that just happens to put a person through extended discomfort, and lowering fevers with drugs often extends the sickness that caused them. Even allergy medicine can fall into this trap - histamine reactions are due to the body (over)reacting to contaminants like pollen and animal dander as if they were infections, and taking antihistamines while one is actually sick can extend the disease. Many drugs have been discovered that are significantly more effective than those commonly sold, but that very effectiveness means that fewer units of it can be sold. Add in that the better drugs are usually more expensive to manufacture, and they are almost impossible to find.note 
  • Averted by Jonas Salk. He had developed the first effective vaccine against Polio which was ravaging the United States and other countries at the time. He refused to patent, so that it could be made at cost, and made Polio something that only happens in third-world countries.