Posted by: Steve Coplan | February 20, 2006

Opportunity knocks

Is there any reason to doubt the resilience of capitalism at the dawn of the 21st century? I’d have to venture that the relentless appetite for returns may at some point wander into territory that may be characterized, as well, macabre . While public health officials across the globe are more than mildly concerned at the increase of diseases crossing from animals to humans, one of the most successful tech venture capital firms ever sees the potential for some very attractive early stage investments – Kleiner Perkins forms $200m pandemic and bio defense fund. After all, you couldn’t hope for a larger addressable market than the entire human species.

Kleiner aren’t entirely insensitive to being perceived as bloodthirsty: “We will invest to accelerate innovation, and we’re in a hurry. We hope even a mild pandemic never recurs. But we must prepare for the worst. Everyone should have access to these innovations. They must be offered at universally affordable prices to the developing world,” the firm says. A cynic (such as myself) would argue that such magnanimity is possible only in light of the scale of the opportunity.

So the question is: does the motive of securing an astronomical return hurt or help the development of prophylactic drugs from a practical perspective? I’m certainly not in a position to make a moral judgement here since I find myself sort of ambivalent I didn’t think of the idea myself. I think I know what the answer is, but there is also the matter of self-preservation to consider. Pandemics are in all likelihood not good for the status quo. My grandmother survived the flu pandemic in 1918, a fact which she is fond of pointing out to her descendants, probably to impress on us that any immunity to disease we enjoy is entirely thanks to her. As devastating as the flu epidemic was, there’s no telling what the impact of the next pandemic will be.
The threat posed by the avian flu is that it has a perfect breeding ground in dense, homogenous flocks of chicken which contract the disease easily given their almost total lack of immunity thanks to breeding from a tiny pool of genes. The strain of virus that eventually emerges is inevitably immune to antibiotics since it has managed to survive everything thrown at it. Once it gets into the human population where a pathogen can travel thousands of miles a day, there’s a limit to the measures that can be employed to contain its spread. Plus, there’s not an enormous amount of difference between veterinary and human antibiotics. Finally, there’s not telling whether immunity to previous epidemics encoded in our genetic material – Black Death and AIDS immunity – will confer immunity to new diseases. The threat then is of a global crisis developing far more quickly than we can prepare for, and little way to model the impact.
How about if the pandemic doesn’t significantly impact the status quo, affecting mostly the economically marginal and those that contribute relatively to the global economy? Would those people be deserving of “universally affordable prices” and ongoing drug development? If the availability of drugs for those infected with HIV is any measure, then probably not.

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