Love (of Profits) in the Time of COVID-19

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No one should be surprised at Big Pharma’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I can’t help feeling nauseated as the bodies continue to pile up (nearly 4.5 million as of August 20, and it’s estimated that the true number is two to three times that). At first glance, the way the pharmaceutical industry is handling the crisis seems completely illogical. The science is obvious, most certainly to the people in that industry, but much as the vaccines themselves are scientific marvels, their roll out has been catastrophically short sighted—from a scientific standpoint.

Just to make sure the rest of my argument is completely clear, humor me for a moment with a basic science lesson. The virus responsible for COVID-19 is a single RNA strand wrapped in a spiky protein shell. The fact that it is RNA (instead of DNA) means that, like Donald Trump, it has no internal fact checking mechanism. What comes out may or may not match what went in. Simply put, COVID-19 is mutation prone. It will adapt, and relatively quickly.

Evolutionary pressure tends toward greater transmissibility, but the usual downward pressure on virulence for an air borne pathogen (dead hosts don’t spread the virus) is largely negated by the long incubation period during which a host is contagious, often before symptoms develop. Effectively, COVID-19 will continue to trend toward greater transmissibility, but it’s deadliness could easily go up or down. Each new copy of the virus is a roll of the dice, and each person generates billions of copies (hundreds of billions in the case of immunocompromised individuals). Most mutations are detrimental or irrelevant, but on rare occasions, the virus will stumble onto something that makes it stronger. Spread billions of chances across millions of people, and you have a mind-boggling number of opportunities for COVID-19 to win the evolutionary lotto. (The Delta variant, in fact, contains three separate mutations that strengthen the virus.)

What does this mean for vaccines and the pharmaceutical industry? It probably means that we’ve already missed our opportunity to use the first versions of the vaccines to wipe the disease out.

Why on earth would world governments have permitted that to happen?!

Simply, because it is not in the interests of profit. The best way to secure the long-term health of the current global economic system (not to mention saving the lives of millions of people) would be mass production and mass distribution of the vaccine to all corners of the world, actions which would deny this virus the opportunity to purchase trillions of lottery tickets. Like with smallpox and polio, we should have worked diligently to eliminate it around the world. Unfortunately, distributing products to people who can’t pay for them is notoriously bad for profits.

For Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna (all legally mandated to serve their shareholders by maximizing quarterly profits), the most profitable outcome is the one we currently see developing. The global south is kept as a COVID-19 reservoir, out of which will come fresh, viral waves, forcing rich countries to keep purchasing perennial booster shots for their privileged few.

And the many millions dead is just the externalized cost of doing business.

by Cesar M