Profit has no place in healthcare – and treating it as a business puts us all in danger
The likely origin of the ‘Omicron’ coronavirus variant has shone a stark light yet again on how global health inequality is a threat to everyone, whichever part of the world you live in. The new variant is growing exponentially and is expected rapidly to become the dominant form in the UK and elsewhere.
According to a Financial Times article this morning, scientists have observed that the new variant actually more closely represents the early forms of the virus than the recent strains including the currently-prevalent ‘Delta’ – and they believe that this means it is an early version that spent a long time mutating in a single, immunocompromised individual before breaking out.
Omicron appears to have emerged in southern Africa where HIV infection is widespread. South Africa, where the initial outbreak was noticed, is believed to have almost two million people infected with HIV and either unaware of it or not being properly treated.
HIV patients treated properly can live normally and are not infectious – and their immune systems would ultimately defeat a coronavirus infection rather than allowing it to remain active and mutate.
But in Africa and other poor regions, the prohibitive cost of such effective treatments puts them out of the reach of most sufferers. Drug companies have been heavily criticised for pricing policies driving this inequality, while western governments have been unwilling to force them to change their behaviour.
When Omicron first emerged, scientists pointed rightly to the widespread infections driven by unavailability of coronavirus vaccines as a key cause, pointing out that the more the virus is allowed to spread the more opportunities it has to mutate into forms that can evade existing immunity from previous infection and vaccination.
Now it appears that the similar health-apartheid of HIV treatment is yet another driving force for the emergence of Omicron, a variant that is able at least partially to evade existing immunity. If early hopes that it causes less severe illness are borne out – although experts are still predicting 75,000 deaths from it by April – the world will have dodged a bullet or at least only have been grazed by it.
But as long as such mad inequality and injustice is allowed to continue, it will only be a matter of time before another variant breaks out – and that one might be far more deadly.
Health inequality – health apartheid is a more apt term as it is both severe and avoidable and therefore a political choice – is alongside climate change as one of the most pressing problems facing humanity. Tragically, there seems to be little will among governments – and in this country at least, the ‘opposition’ – to change their habits of kowtowing to big business in order to perform their primary function of keeping us all safe and well.
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