Sanjeewaka Kulathunga calls for a balance between people, planet and profit

The COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t seem to be abating and the hard hit global economy is impacting people’s lives around the world. Even though several vaccines have been produced by global pharmaceutical companies to combat SARS-CoV-2, the sudden emergence of new variants in the South Asian region have put the system under extreme stress.

This viral outbreak is creating a massive strain on societies and economies around the globe as nations work towards mitigating the highly infectious disease, the fear of becoming infected, and emotional and financial issues emanating from measures such as physical distancing.

In such a critical situation, healthcare professionals are facing unprecedented challen-ges on how to advise and treat patients, while finding innovative ways to manage intensive care and minimise the number of fatalities.

The impact of COVID-19 on hospitals and healthcare professionals is getting worse day by day. Due to the highly infectious and fatal coronavirus variants, many developing and emerging economies are facing growing challenges in their healthcare systems since many don’t have efficient facilities to curtail the rate of infection.

One of the most profitable businesses today is the pharmaceutical industry. It has enjoyed accelerated growth in the global arena in recent years and currently, the value of the pharmaceuticals market is estimated at US$ 1.27 trillion, having been valued at only 390 billion dollars 10 years ago.

The cooperation of global giants in the pharmaceutical industry such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Roche, Novartis, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline and Takeda is critically important – and they need to pledge their support to combat the pandemic.

They must go beyond their rivalry over market share and profit considerations since this is a disaster of universal proportions. And the crisis calls for their immediate support so that citizens of the world can access vaccines and related medicines.

Even during a pandemic such as this, the ultimate ethical goal of pharmaceutical companies is to discover and develop safe and effective vaccines and medicines to save the lives of patients, as well as derive profits for their shareholders and invest in R&D to prevent such a catastrophe in the future.

It is understood that pharmaceutical companies aren’t charitable institutions to provide vaccines and medications for millions of COVID-19 patients free of charge, as huge costs are incurred on R&D and the production process.

Furthermore, salaries, dividends and taxes also need to be paid. However, big pharma should be ethical and empathetic, and not seek to generate undue profits by taking advantage of such a global catastrophe. That would be akin to fishing in troubled waters.

To enjoy a high standard of healthcare services is the universal right of every human being irrespective of race, religion, political beliefs, or economic or social status. As such, every global citizen has the fundamental right to be treated and vaccinated against COVID-19.

In the case of past endemics such as polio, Ebola and HIV/AIDS, relevant health authorities, governments and institutions came together as
a global community to provide medicines that saved patients’ lives.

Scientists took years to develop effective treatments for HIV/AIDS; and by 1997, most people diagnosed with the disease in Europe and the US could live longer without facing complications.

Meanwhile, millions of people died from HIV/AIDS in Africa because pharmaceutical companies weren’t prepared to reduce the annual cost per patient for medication, which was approximately 10,000-15,000 dollars.

As a result, human rights activists campaigned around the world for big pharma to offer antiretroviral drugs at affordable prices to poor countries.

Unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines and medicines is not only unethical but also a huge risk for people worldwide especially during a global pandemic.

Accordingly, Medicines Patent Pool, which is an organisation backed by the UN, is trying to persuade big pharma to share its patents
for drugs and vaccines against COVID-19 as a matter of urgency.

Around the world, healthcare experts are proposing a global mechanism for the distribution of drugs and vaccines developed by big pharma to nations and regions most severely affected by COVID-19, based on the net health benefits received by the population during such a pandemic.

Irrespective of the business philosophies of the pharmaceutical industry, companies should eventually be called upon to protect humanity during a pandemic. Big pharma must strike a balance between people, planet and profit – particularly at a critical time such as this.