Home > Uncategorized > Yes folks, Omicron can be blamed on patent monopolies

Yes folks, Omicron can be blamed on patent monopolies

from Dean Baker

The development of the new variant, which was first discovered in South Africa, can be attributed to our failure to open-source our vaccines and freely transfer technology, contrary to claims from the pharmaceutical industry and its political allies. Their big talking point is that South Africa currently has more vaccines than it can effectively use at the moment.

This claim ignores two important points. The first is that we really don’t know where this strain originated. It was first identified in South Africa in part because its screening system happened to catch it. South Africa then did the responsible thing and reported to the world that it had uncovered a new variant.

This doesn’t mean that the Omicron variant originated in South Africa. It has been identified in samples taken in the Netherlands several days before its discovery in South Africa. The variant was also identified in a sample in Nigeria that was taken in October. Since we are not sure where it originated at this point, it’s not clear that South Africa’s current ability to deliver vaccines has much relevance to the development of the omicron variant.

But a second point is even more important. The development of variants depends on the extent of the spread of the virus. The more people who get COVID-19, the more opportunity the virus has to mutate.

Suppose we had a genuine worldwide effort to contain the pandemic from when it was first recognized in February of 2020. Ideally, we would have seen international collaboration involving the sharing of technology and resources. This would have meant creating a world in which anyone with the production capacity, or the ability to develop the production capacity, could manufacture mRNA vaccines. It also would have meant coordinating the production and distribution of the less effective Chinese vaccines, as well as vaccines from Russia and India, until we could produce a sufficient number of mRNA vaccines.

If we had really engaged in an all out effort to get the world vaccinated, it is likely the vast majority of the world’s population could have been vaccinated by the summer. (China had produced close to 2 billion of its vaccines by the end of July.) This would have hugely slowed the spread of the pandemic and drastically reduced the likelihood of mutations.

Of course, we can never say for certain whether a specific variant would have developed in a world with much less spread, just as we can never say whether a particular hurricane is attributable to global warming. But we know that without global warming we would see fewer hurricanes and with less spread we would see fewer mutations.

So yes, blame government-granted patent monopolies. Maybe one day we can have a serious discussion of better mechanisms for financing the development of new drugs and vaccines. In the meantime, we need to double down on our efforts to get the world vaccinated as quickly as possible

  1. JD
    December 5, 2021 at 1:02 am

    I apologize in advance if my comments offend any economists who might read this. But it seems hypocritical to call out patent monopolies for criticism on the basis that they give a higher priority to corporate profits than to human lives. Why hypocritical? Because our entire economic system gives higher priority to corporate profits than to human lives and always has. Worse than that, even, the entire “discipline” of economics does not even raise the question as to which should have higher priority. There is no economic argument to be made about which should be considered more important since economists are not able to assign a quantitative economic value to human life. Yes, economists can calculate the preferability of one strategy of investment over another to the tenth decimal, and perform regression analysis on a scenario with twenty variables. But the value of human life, much less life that is secure, healthy, productive, and sustainable will never be part of that analysis. You must have noticed that a big financial firm packaged worthless securities and sold them to pension funds and governments, profiting both from the deals and from the predicted failure of the securities, at the expense of many people’s well-being. There was no economic argument on which to base a criticism of this scheme. Nor was there any economic way to criticize the same firm when it caused widespread malnutrition and even starvation by speculating on futures in necessary food products. If you really want to say that human lives should in some cases be given higher priority than corporate profits, what are you basing that on? And do you realize that you are arguing against our entire economic system and the flimsy intellectual discipline that supports and rationalizes it when you do that?

  2. Ken Zimmerman
    December 16, 2021 at 9:59 am

    Michael B.A. Oldstone, in his book VIRUSES, PLAGUES, AND HISTORY Past, Present, and Future (2010) traces the history of struggles to find each agent of four viral diseases—smallpox, yellow fever, measles, and poliomyelitis—that science has controlled despite the unrestrained devastation and misery they once caused. He looks into what was known from its initial description, what unique problems existed, what actions were the most critical in solving the problems, why these decisions were made, and at what point community and governmental support provided the essential resources or stood in the way of progress. These success stories are contrasted with those of seven viral infections that currently remain out of control—Lassa fever virus, Ebola virus, Hantavirus, SARS, West Nile virus, and human immunodeficiency virus—and with the continuing threat from influenza, now reasonably contained but with the potential to revert to a worldwide pandemic disaster. To that list we can now add COVID-19.

    Oldstone also tells the story of an unusual group of progressive neurologic disorders, the spongiform encephalopathies (scrapie, mad cow disease, variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, chronic wasting disease of deer and elk), and the debate as to whether they are caused by a virus or a prion (protein). A common thread of fear, superstition, and irrational behavior runs through all twelve stories, testifying to our human fallibility. Unsubstantiated rumors or beliefs that the poliovirus vaccine was the cause of HIV, that autism results from vaccination with measles virus, and so forth, have led to refusal to take vaccines with resultant outbreaks of virus infections that should not have occurred. However, the motivation and skill of scientists along with the right community and governmental leaders and support have led to important victories over some viral plagues, and there will be more, says Oldstone.

    And of course this history extends back to older viruses and older pandemics. When medical treatment was more primitive and less available. Much of the fear and confusion about the current COVID-19 pandemic is based on deliberate misinformation about COVID-19 and ignorance about past epidemics and pandemics. But our 21st century world differs from the world of the last pandemics, the 1918 flu, 1945-1960 Poliomyelitis, and 1980-current AIDS. And not only in the ability to resist or turn back a pandemic disease.

    Biomedical science and the political systems of the world are better equipped to confront an epidemic now than they were in 1918, 1945, or 1980. In the course of the 20th century, people came to an understanding of the nature of viruses, and were able to isolate them successfully. With that knowledge came the ability to prepare vaccines that might prevent a disease and/or lessen it’s severity. The empirical development of vaccines that had begun with doctors with Jenner and smallpox in 1797 (and farmer Benjamin Jesty two decades earlier) now had a theoretical basis, and could be extended to many other ailments, including poliomyelitis and the varieties of influenza. And now AIDS and COVID-19.
    While viral diseases remain difficult to treat once they strike, antibiotics (from the 1940s on) now can be employed against the wide range of bacterial infections, which included some of the major epidemic killers of the past: plague, cholera, pneumonia, anthrax, and tuberculosis among them. Epidemiological science has acquired new precision about the etiologies of different diseases, understanding their immediate causes (e.g., parasitic microorganisms), the roles of intermediaries such as other species that carry the parasites, and the roles of the larger environment in which diseases exist. We now know (knowledge developed since the mid-19th century) the many ways in which clean water supplies are important in the control of epidemics, for example.

    International political cooperation to resist epidemics has advanced as well, although many obstacles remain for it. The World Health Organization, founded in 1948 is one of the United Nations’ most successful agencies, has coordinated and standardized mortality statistics, drafted international conventions on such responses as quarantines, and promoted cooperative international attacks on AIDS, for example. Many national governments have active departments and offices for both the promotion of public health and the control of diseases. For example, the CDC, NIH, and FDA in the US.

    Also, by the early 21st century much of the world’s population have been medicalized. That is, popular opinion has accepted the notion that diseases call for responses from the world of biomedicine; when flu strikes one consults a physician. (Examples of medicalization include mental disorders, some criminal actions, alcoholism, childbirth, and anorexia nervosa, all of which in some earlier period were thought to be the province of moralists, clergy, legal sanctions, or health providers such as midwives. Now in most of the world people tend to claim these territories for doctors and hospitals, not other professions, institutions, or disciplines.) When large numbers of people have accepted medicalization, they will more likely have recourse to the vaccines and antibiotics offered by modern biomedicine. Epidemics, especially those that move by contagion (as most do) from one person to another, may thus run out of susceptible victims.

    But while human actions have fostered optimism, other human actions have increased the world’s vulnerability to epidemics. Those actions have led to demographic, social, economic, political, and environmental changes. Meanwhile the successes of modern biomedicine have created other vulnerabilities.

    For example, denser urban populations mean potentially easier movement of disease among more people; perhaps more important, they make more likely the rapid diffusion of airborne diseases such as influenzas and tuberculosis. A dense urban population also makes a large number of people dependent on a safe water (and sewer) system; if such a system fails, the population will be at risk of waterborne epidemics such as cholera or typhoid fever. And, as the tragic 1984 release of poisonous gases from a chemical factory in Bhopal, India, and the Visakhapatnam gas leak of 2020, showed, a dense urban population also means more people at risk from accidental environmental poisoning (or, indeed, from deliberate bioterrorism that releases disease microorganisms).

    The remarkable mobility of people today is also a concern. The range and speed of jet passenger planes mean that all cities on earth are less than a day’s journey from each other. Any disease in the world may therefore be less than a day away. Aircraft carrying several hundred people in tightly enclosed tubes are themselves likely epidemic incubators, far more efficient vectors than 14th century caravans or 1918 troopships.

    But of equal or greater importance is the volume of population movement. In 2020, refugees uprooted from their homes numbered about 82 million in the world. Also, free trade agreements have created zones that allow labor to move more freely across old national borders. As people move, so too perhaps do their microorganisms. And will immigrant populations be marginalized and stigmatized in their new homes, especially if they are regarded as the carriers of epidemic disease? (A la Donald Trump and the US Republican party.)

    Those free trade agreements symbolize another powerful force of the early 21st century: the economic and political power of free market capitalism. The effects of modern capitalism on the world’s disease environment remain uncertain. The most important unresolved question is probably this: is global inequality rising or declining? The spread of disease historically has most often correlated with poverty, and if free market capitalism spreads prosperity more widely, then epidemics may be more easily held at bay. But if—as others maintain—free market capitalism tends to impoverish the inevitable losers in competition, and the number of those losers grows, then the ground for epidemics will become more fertile.

    Beneath that overarching question about the world’s economic system are others that are more immediately relevant to the future of epidemics. The establishment of a public health infrastructure, especially water and sewer lines, can be enormously expensive; so too their maintenance in places where they already exist. Are modern developed societies willing to raise public money— taxes—for such purposes? Should such activities be left to free markets? And can developing societies afford to do such construction and maintenance? In 2020, around 1 in 4 people lacked safely managed drinking water in their homes and nearly half the world’s population lacked safely managed sanitation. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 3 in 10 people worldwide could not wash their hands with soap and water within their homes.

    Besides being much larger and more urban, the world’s population differs from that of previous centuries in another way as well. Its age structures have changed. The populations of most of the developed countries have aged. Does that make the people of Europe and Japan (for example) more vulnerable to some epidemic diseases? Traditionally, many epidemics have been most severe for those at the extremes of the age spectrum: that is, mortality rates have been highest for the very young and the very old. The 1918 influenza pandemic was unusual, in that it attacked the population of young adults. Will the next influenza revert to the more usual pattern, and if it does, will the aging populations of the developed world be especially at risk? On the other hand, the age structures of the developing worlds of Asia, Africa, and Latin America are generally younger. One of the major epidemic threats to those areas of the world—AIDS—concentrates its assault on young adults, and that circumstance weakens the chances of those societies for economic success, or even survival.

    Still other uncertainties for the future of epidemics stem from the very successes of modern biomedicine. Preventive vaccines and antibiotics are both in an evolutionary race with the viruses and bacteria they confront. Resistant strains of the causative organisms of malaria, tuberculosis, and plague have all emerged. Will the development of new vaccines and antibiotics keep pace? What will be the costs of doing so? How will some societies—the ones most seriously affected—afford those costs?

    When biomedicine claims a genuine triumph, as it has done with the eradication of smallpox in humans, political and biological questions remain. Laboratory stocks of causative microorganisms (viruses, bacteria) may still exist. What should be done with them? Destroying them might keep the world free of the danger of their accidental release or their seizure by bioterrorists. Preserving them might make it easier to reconstitute vaccines. And since—in the case of smallpox—vaccinations ceased with the disease’s last human case in 1977, a large proportion of the world’s population would be virgin soil for a renewed smallpox epidemic.

    While medicalization has advanced in many parts of the world, it remains incomplete. That means that many people do not seek medical solutions to epidemic problems. In many cases costs may be a determinant; people would seek medical solutions if they could afford them. Many others (in developed and developing worlds alike) are repelled by different aspects of biomedicine, perhaps preferring alternative healing modes, perhaps turning to religion. At the least, the result will be uncertain responses to epidemic threats.

    Many of these uncertainties about the future of epidemic disease environments are at heart political. Will the wealthy developed nations decide that their own interests are served by promoting public health in less wealthy countries? What priorities will be chosen when public health is addressed? In confronting COVID-19, AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, etc. political choices must constantly be made. For example, is AIDS best fought by reforming popular sexual practices and stamping out drug addiction, or by accepting the reality of sexual behavior and addiction and making them safer in practical, nonjudgmental ways? Political disagreements about such points will certainly persist, and new political points will arise. Responses to epidemics will likely remain ambiguous.

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