[FOUNTAIN]Health vs. economics

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[FOUNTAIN]Health vs. economics

American medical scientist Jonas Salk was the first person to develop a vaccine for polio in 1955. Back then, polio was the deadliest disease prevalent throughout the world.
Even after 200 potential vaccines failed to work, he did not give up. When the vaccine was developed in the end, he experimented with it on himself and his family. After the vaccine was proven effective, a fortune was a natural outcome, but Dr. Salk released the vaccine for free. When people tried to stop him, he asked, “Do you license the sun?”
In 1978, U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck Sharp & Dohme was in agony over its new drug Mectizan. It showed great effectiveness against river blindness, a disease produced by black fly bites, but the problem was economic efficiency. River blindness was a local disease found only in Africa and Africans were poor. However, Merck poured over $1 billion into Mectizan. In 1987, it began to mass produce the drug and distribute it free to African residents.
The belief of company founder John Merck was firm: “People should come first, then profit, in the case of drugs.” Fortune magazine selected Merck as one of the most globally respected companies for seven years in a row.
Recently, the fear of bird flu is creating a disturbance around the world. England was shamed in public after a secret list of people who are to receive the influenza drug Tamiflu first in case of an emergency was revealed.
According to The Times, which obtained the secret list, at the top of the list was the person in charge of public health administration. The newspaper reported that many ministers and governing party politicians were on the list but politicians who are not members of the governing Labor Party were excluded.
Also, patients, children, the elderly and pregnant women were also missing from the list. The World Health Organization warned that it would take 10 years for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche to produce enough medicine for only 20 percent of the world’s population. Roche holds the exclusive right to produce Tamiflu.
Roche defended itself by announcing that it would increase production by 10 times the current rate. The worried leading countries are even talking about compulsory licensing, since it is a right to produce a medicine without the consent of the patent holder in the case of an emergency.
In fear, everyone is watching the situation, holding their breath. If it were Merck, not Roche, what would have been the decision? At a time like this, the late Dr. Salk seems more worthy of respect than ever.

by Lee Chul-ho

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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