Ebola Vaccine and the Limits of Capitalism

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

All of WC’s readers who think WC is a closet commie better get your red pencils ready. WC is going to talk about the limits of capitalism. Which is the sheerest heresy in America since Tailgunner Joe McCarthy ran out of good ideas, and took refuge in Red Hunts.

The most recent instance of capitalism’s failure is the Ebola vaccine. The New York Times reports,

Almost a decade ago, scientists from Canada and the United States reported that they had created a vaccine that was 100 percent effective in protecting monkeys against the Ebola virus. The results were published in a respected journal, and health officials called them exciting. The researchers said tests in people might start within two years, and a product could potentially be ready for licensing by 2010 or 2011.

But that never happened. Full-scale humans trials cost tens of millions of dollars. The number of Ebola infections was small then, and afflicted West Africans, who are mostly poor and can’t afford to buy medical care. Because there was no profit in it, the very promising Ebola vaccine project was shelved indefinitely.

The company that made the decision is mostly irrelevant to WC’s point. It’s in the Times article if you are curious. But the fault isn’t the company; it’s the economic system, which attaches value only to profit.

We’re living through the consequences now. Nearly 5,000 people are dead from Ebola and an epidemic is raging out of control in West Africa. Irrational hysteria here in the U.S. A huge diversion of health resources in Africa from the serious, chronic problems like malaria to focus on Ebola. All of this could have been avoided if medical research was focused on risk assessment instead of profit.

A proper risk assessment would have found that there was an unknown reservoir of the Ebola virus in the wild. That the risk of infection during the course of treatment was very high. And that the fatality rate following infection was very high. Those are the kinds of things should command the world’s and medical research’s attention. Not how many megabucks can be made on a medical product.

Yes, it is extremely expensive to perform proper trials of new medications. But when medical researchers tell you they can’t afford those trials without the promise of profit, what they are really saying is that profit is more important than lives or safety. What they are saying is that shareholder dividends are more important than 5,000 – 10,000 lives.

It’s one of the very serious flaws in the corporate structure as a wealth-pooling and wealth-producing tool. It is a limit of capitalism. Altruism has long since been demonstrated to have a genetic basis. A form of business structure that flies in the face of our genetic self-interest is a very bad idea.

Sure, now that the cow is well and truly out of the barn, down the road, and run over by a couple of trucks, now they are going to start trials. If they expedite the trials, there could be a vaccine in as few as nine months. Because now there is a profit to be made. Now everyone wants to be safe from the perceived scourge of Ebola. A projected 10,000 or more people will have died – how many depends on the work of heroes like Doctors Without Borders – because the vaccine sat on a shelf.

Why is it that no conspiracy theories ever appear about stuff like this?

No, WC isn’t suggesting that the Ebola vaccine was withheld to induce added shareholder value when the disease broke loose from the impoverished central West African countries. WC hasn’t sunk to conspiracies just yet. If only because WC knows corporations are too focused on immediate shareholder return to implement any long term, Machievellian strategies.

It’s not just Ebola.  Drug manufacturer Gilead has developed Sovaldi, a treatment of Hepatitis C. A course of treatment costs about $85,000. It’s by far the most expensive drug ever sold. Gilead expects to recoup its entire R & D expense incurred in developing Sovaldi this year; the next nine years of exclusive licensing are pure profit. All of us – through health insurance premiums, Medicare payments and taxes for Medicaid – will be paying for those Hepatitis C treatments.

A solution to this limit of capitalism isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to require international cooperation, tax and other incentives to induce sensible behavior. Because Big Pharma has bought the mean little souls of most Republican congresspersons, it isn’t going to happen right away. But there are 5,000 reasons and counting why it has to happen. Ebola isn’t the last or worst infectious disease out there.

And if criticizing capitalism, if recognizing that the corporate structure has effective limits, makes WC a commie in your eyes, so be it. If the only way you can deal with reality is by name-calling, good luck in this world.