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September 27, 2014


We are now told that there is neither vaccine nor treatment for Ebola, and why not? It is a known killer disease with potential to turn pandemic, a disaster in waiting for humanity with the further potential of mimicking the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed thousands (including my twin great uncle and aunt as babies at the end of WW I). That was almost a century ago, a time when the state of the medical art was relatively primitive and drug development leading to patenting and huge profits to corporate drug makers was not a big thing. What’s our excuse these days for having neither protection of a vaccine nor antidote of cure from this possible Black Plague of the 21st century? Why haven’t our drug makers, bloated with profits, and who spend more money on advertising of yesterday’s panaceas than they do on research and development for known killer diseases of today and tomorrow, come up with medicines to both protect and cure victims of Ebola? Answer: Because drug makers are corporations, and their boards saw no profit in such research when its victims were penniless and elsewhere.

James Surowiecki in the New Yorker correctly points out that when drug companies decide to spend research dollars, they naturally assess the potential market and are thus more likely to develop drugs to treat people who can afford to buy them. The result of such choices, of course, is that there is an enormous underinvestment in certain kinds of diseases and certain categories of drugs, especially those that affect poor people in poor countries. (See Sierra Leone today.)

People who live in the currently Ebola-infected venues are thus to die because of corporate board action or inaction in a no profit – no medicine scheme of things. It seems to me that allowing international health hazards to prosper because of lack of profit in research is more than shortsighted; it is medieval. I am sure that 14th century England would have gladly paid public monies to avoid the devastation of the Black Plague, but the idea of vaccinations and antibiotics was unknown at that time.

What is our excuse today, that Ebola is something new? It is not new; we have known of this hemorrhagic fever for over 30 years, but apparently so long as it’s only killing poor people in Africa who have no money and constitutes no threat to people who have the money to buy such a yet-to-be created lifesaver here, and since it promises no huge profits that blockbuster compounds do (unless it spreads and a viable market is thus formed), forget the research. With globalization and people from all over flying into everywhere as opposed to few visitors to England from the Continent and virtually none from Africa in the 14th century, the Ebola virus could be the Black Plague of our 21st century due, not to the state of the art in research, but to a corporate requirement of showing profitability.

It is clear to me that if private enterprise will only spend money on the development of drugs that are profitable, then government must take the initiative in identifying potentially epidemic diseases and conditions and providing for research leading to drugs that protect public health and survival from such plagues. Socialism? It already is. We provide taxpayer-paid basic research to the drug companies, we provide deductions and credits for their research and development; we give them monopolies for their products via patents so that they can charge what the market will bear for years on end. It’s the same old story, socialism for the rich and brutal capitalism for the rest of us as we pick up the bills.

This story is far from ended, perhaps depending upon how many new cases show up here among those of us who could and would pay for medicine (if it were available) to either protect ourselves via vaccination or save our lives if the virus has already been contracted. There is perhaps a more serious problem these days in drug research, or lack of it, and it is the recent emergence of drug-resistant microbes, or as some call them, superbugs. While their emergence is relatively recent, we have known for years that they were coming on as those of us who have overdone antibiotic prescriptions have found to both their peril and dismay.

Surowiecki writes that “Health experts agree that we need to develop stockpiles of drugs to combat these new strains in the event of a major outbreak, but persuading pharmaceutical companies to do that won’t be easy, because the point in having these drugs is not to bring them to market but to keep them in reserve.” What a commentary on corporate control of our very lives to add to their control of our economy! Now pharmaceutical companies apparently wish to wait until there are a (corporately- determined) requisite number of deaths in order to trigger “bringing life-saving medicines to market,” which will open the floodgates to panicked buyers by the millions and crank up the resulting tsunami of profits to festoon their bottom lines. Capitalism at its best?

I have a question and it is this: What about the people who died (in order to trigger the corporately-decided “requisite number of people who died”) because of such companies’ profit-making myopia? We know that cave men and women died young for many reasons, and that one of the major causes was infection. Must modern-day Americans die in a sufficient number to activate our monopolistic pharmaceutical companies to do R & D and/or release life-saving drugs from current stockpiles in order to trigger profits (and panic-buying by survivors)? Are life-saving medicines mere commodities? Must Americans suffer “cave man” fates so that corporate America can prosper by withholding life-saving drugs and/or delay doing R & D (or both) in the name of later super profits when deaths from the superbug reaches a certain quantitative degree? Do corporations now control not only all our economic fates but even the life or death of those who have fallen prey to the superbug? Have corporations now described by the Supreme Court as “people” gone from there to playing God? Where does this end?

If I am on a societal train and this is a lesson in “free trade” and “private enterprise” and “maximization of profits” and if the above example of total greed is representative of other wonders of capitalism yet to come (if not here already), then let me off at the next stop. The tail is not only wagging the dog; it is devouring him or her, and any society that allows such outrages as that described above to persist under the auspices of any economic or social order is itself amoral, thus my final query: What are we as a society going to do about it, and when?   GERALD   E

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