This week the medical-aid organization Doctors Without Borders refused a donation of one million vaccine doses from the pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer. It offered inoculations against a commonly fatal pneumonia—deliverable immediately, to people in need anywhere—and the doctors said no.
The decision is the result of a fundamental impasse in modern healthcare. The heart of the refusal—which could well imperil children who would have received those vaccines—is a principled stand against the extremely high cost of many vaccines.
Pfizer tells me that their revenue from the vaccine in question last year was $6.245 billion. (That’s the same as the revenue of United Airlines.) The enormous business includes much profit from countries that are willing and able to pay inflated prices for a life-saving vaccine. It necessarily leaves others behind.
How has this system come to such a head that humanitarian doctors would refuse a million vaccines on principle?
The medical background: The leading cause of death in children is pneumonia. In the lungs, alveoli fill with pus, which blocks the passage of oxygen. A person is essentially suffocated by their own immune response. This happens to 1.4 million kids every year. The process is often the result of one bacterium, Streptococcus pneumoniae. Decades ago, scientists were able to isolate proteins and carbohydrates from S. pneumoniae and expose children to only those benign molecules, instead of the entire bacteria. The kids’ bodies learned to recognize and destroy S. pneumoniae without having to be exposed to it.