Coronavirus has exposed the effects of successive budgetary cuts on the NHS, leaving the health service under-resourced and ill-equipped to cope with a pandemic. And like other pandemics before it, coronavirus will disproportionately take the lives of those who are most vulnerable: the elderly, the homeless, prisoners, migrants denied access to healthcare, and those with existing health conditions such as cancer and HIV.
The virus has also shone a light on another fatal weakness in our health system: the profit-driven pharmaceutical innovation model that we rely upon to develop life-saving vaccines and medicines.
The news that Donald Trump has sought to buy up the exclusive rights to a promising Covid-19 vaccine from a German biotech firm has been greeted with anger. During a global crisis, when all of humanity is at risk, our sense of fairness – and our own self-interest – makes this shameless attempt to buy the right to life (with little regard for those it excludes) seem immoral.
But this is about more than just Trump. Coronavirus should give us pause to reflect upon whether the pharmaceutical industry, and the monopolies that drive its profits, should continue to control which medicines will be developed, and who will get to access them.
Profit is what drives decision-making in the pharmaceuticals industry. It’s why we don’t have drugs to treat diseases such as tuberculosis, which kill millions of the world’s poor every year – and it’s also why we aren’t closer to finding a vaccine for Covid-19.
This isn’t the first coronavirus to threaten the world, after all. Researchers had a promising candidate to treat viruses like Sars and coronavirus in 2016, but with little money to be made, they instead focused their efforts on more lucrative lines of business.
After the Ebola crisis in 2014, which briefly threatened the rich world, western countries decided to research treatments for the disease that had been killing people in Africa for years. The Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a foundation based in Washington DC, was established in 2017 to drive public investment in R&D for pandemic treatments, but even today it complains that it has struggled to interest pharmaceutical companies in research that could save countless lives.
As companies are starting to see the potential for profit in Covid-19, investment has grown; like almost every drug brought to market, the public sector will play a critical role in funding almost every candidate vaccine and treatment.
There’s another aspect to this, overlooked by spoilt for choice McDonald. I refer to the needless duplication of effort. There are signs of some pooling of knowledge through such as the Gates Foundation, but in the main it’s business as usual.
In the name of “free competition” – an absurd notion when almost every arena of commercial activity under modern capitalism precludes your entry or mine – teams of privately employed scientists are working in conditions of secrecy not just from customers but one another. That’s capitalism for you, at best wasteful of human effort and at worst criminally so.
Not that Big Pharma is the only aspect of capitalism exposed by the pandemic. In 2018 27.5 million Americans lacked health cover of any kind. Many if not most will be members of the precariat. They don’t work; they don’t eat. What incentive to self isolate or – assuming such a thing were even possible – have themselves tested for CV-19?
My point being that capitalism is not only unfair but impractical. My post yesterday cited the impossibility of defeating CV19 in Europe or North America while it rages in the global south, the vast majority of whose citizens also lack health cover, and also conduct their lives in light of that stark reality: they don’t work; they don’t eat.
Capitalism has failed us, a truth the pandemic has exposed as never before in my lifetime.
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