Info Service on Health Issues (Mar20/04)
Pandemics don’t destroy societies, but they do expose their weaknesses. As the historian of medicine Frank Snowden recently told the New Yorker: “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning … on the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities.”
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.
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.
In the same way that pandemics show the worst in us, they can also teach us how to make ourselves safer. This should begin with proper care for the vulnerable, committing to health as a human right, and investing sufficient money in a publicly owned and operated NHS to ensure we can all realise that right.
If coronavirus teaches us anything, it should be to reject the selfish Trumpian response to this crisis, and embrace a pharmaceutical model that is driven by public interest, and which rewards the creation of universally accessible treatments. In the face of a pandemic, rampant profiteering and national exceptionalism are transparently unacceptable.
Diarmaid McDonald is lead organiser of Just Treatment, a UK-based patient activist group