"Your health should not be a financial consideration, it should be something you are entitled to". In light of the recent developments in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, Jessica Burt, discusses the potential hidden costs of international immunity.
As countries around the world have anxiously waited for a COVID vaccine, all eyes have been on the large pharmaceutical competent racing to be the first to declare themselves the saviours of the world from the clutches of the pandemic. Any hope of life “going back to normal” rests on these researchers, and to them we should be grateful, but we shouldn’t forget what these companies potentially stand to gain for their hard work. The pharmaceutical industry is on track to be worth $1.5 trillion (£1.13 trillion) by 2023 – a stark reminder of what the cost of this vaccine will be to governments and individuals.
Many governments with private healthcare systems have put in place provisions to ensure that healthcare plans will cover the cost of a vaccine, with the bipartisan Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in the US being just one. But this by no means guarantees that a vaccine would be free. According to the Commonwealth Fund, two-thirds of American adults are concerned about the costs of COVID-19 treatment. In one of the wealthiest nations in the world, this seems bizarre and shocking, particularly when contrasted with the complete absence of such concerns in the UK. These concerns are reflective of people’s experience of healthcare in private systems and demonstrate the immoral nature of systems that put a price on people’s health.
In times of crisis it has been recognised that government intervention is necessary, but this does not come close to the levels of healthcare required to meet people’s basic needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in widespread unemployment, with millions losing their jobs and consequently their healthcare. It benefits no-one to continue with systems that make people unhealthy. Both for the economy and for society at large, healthy people are needed. In times of crisis, both global and personal, the vast majority of us recognise the need for public healthcare measures, but this recognition must translate into the examination of the pharmaceutical industry providing the drugs we need. The research of pharmaceutical companies is often hindered by its reliance on market incentives – being spurred on by the amount of capital generated. The rise in antibiotic resistance has done nothing to spur research in favour of a new form of drug because it simply isn’t profitable. The myth that privatisation is needed to generate research is a dangerous one that prevents questioning of who is benefiting from the research being done. In a global pandemic, we recognise that it is in everyone’s interest for a vaccine to be developed, but there is also the lurking possibility that the discovery of one may not be the miracle we seek: a select few companies could see a huge financial benefit, while individuals in many countries fail to access the vaccine because they have lost their jobs and healthcare plans.
Your health should not be a financial consideration, it should be something you are entitled to. We need to transform the way that we view healthcare in countries where it is privatised and recognise the flawed nature of pharmaceutical research when it is motivated by profit rather than public health.