At a press conference on Thursday, the World Health Organization described the Zika virus as “spreading explosively,” with the potential to affect four million people in the Americas alone. The mosquito-transmitted virus is prompting panic similar to the Ebola outbreak of 2014. While Zika exhibits only mild symptoms for most people, experts believe that infected pregnant women have a higher chance of giving birth to babies with microcephaly, a rare neurologic birth disorder. Some suspect there is also a link between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a form of paralysis. Zika, which had been limited to equatorial Asia and Africa until recently, has spread to Brazil and the United States. Since October, 3,500 cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil since October, and there has been at least one Zika-related death in the
In a world that continues to grow more connected every day, global outbreaks are somewhat unavoidable. Nonetheless, changes to our global healthcare and pharmaceutical industries can substantially reduce the possibility of a serious outbreak. Despite the resources now being devoted to research, experts say it could still take up to 10 years to develop a vaccine or treatment for the virus. Considering that we have known of Zika’s existence for decades, it is shameful that we only regard it as a serious concern once it begins to threaten thousands. This flawed reasoning perpetuates the current cycle of widespread panic followed by officials scrambling to control a predictable situation. In our globalized world, where mosquitoes do not recognize borders, one reported case is already halfway to one thousand.
It is easy to blame pharmaceutical companies for neglecting some diseases, but we cannot expect them to invest in research that would just not pay off. However, private corporations have access to the best resources, which leaves governments responsible for making the economics work for them. Many politicians, including President Obama, have expressed interest in reforming the system so that pharma is not given patents for their developments, but monetary prizes instead. This provides an incentive for companies to competitively fund research on many more diseases, including ones with serious infectious potential that currently only affect fewer or poorer people. It also has the added benefit of preventing monopolies that can lead to treatments costing $750 a pill. The financial burden of these prize funds may fall on citizens of wealthy countries, but it must be embraced as the cost of a safer, healthier planet.
The ethical argument is even stronger. It is disgraceful to let people suffer or seek out black market medicines simply because it would not be profitable to treat them. Our governments and organizations like WHO need to recognize that a prudent shift to prizes is worth trying in order to gather a hesitant public’s support. This new system will reward innovation — not greed.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, February 1 print edition. Email Akshay Prabhushhankar at [email protected]