Eugene Gu, The Independent
With the CDC announcing that a coronavirus outbreak in the United States is likely to occur and that we may have to modify our behaviour to be more isolated from each other, it’s no surprise that many Americans are on edge and the stock markets heavily spooked. That’s why all eyes were on Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar during a Congressional hearing this week when he inexplicably said that he could not promise a vaccine for the coronavirus would be affordable. He even went on to say that “we can’t control the price because we need the private sector to invest.”
While he soon walked back his comment after receiving blistering criticism, Secretary Azar unwittingly revealed a long standing socio-economic injustice in the way drugs and vaccines are made in America. It becomes all the more glaring as we sit on the verge of a possible coronavirus pandemic.
American taxpayers fund the research and development of many drugs and vaccines, and even risk their own bodies to participate in clinical trials that determine both the safety and efficacy of these drugs. But in a preposterous twist, we must then pay exorbitant prices to pharmaceutical companies just to use the very drugs we helped develop. This is in effect socialism followed by highway robbery for Big Pharma, which Azar knows all too well since he infamously more than tripled the price of insulin when he was the Vice President of Eli Lilly. This was in spite of the fact that the doctors who discovered insulin, Frederick Banting and Charles Best, sold their patent for $1 for the public good to help those suffering from diabetes.
Protecting the rich at the expense of the poor does nothing to fight a contagious disease that attacks the weakest and most vulnerable links in society to bring down the whole chain. But even beyond the economic inequality of American healthcare, this brings to the fore an even deeper issue when it comes to our country’s drug and vaccine development pipeline. Republicans have been waging an ideological war against science in the name of religion for many years that has been hampering our efforts to combat new and emerging infectious diseases. Nothing illustrates this case more than the Republican war on medical research involving foetal tissue.
Throughout history, foetal tissue has been indispensable for developing lifesaving vaccines. Jonas Salk in the 1950s used human foetal kidney cells to incubate the polio virus and develop the polio vaccine, saving countless children from iron lungs. Vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox all come with human foetal cell lines. Even our understanding of how HIV causes AIDS comes from studying mice with transplanted human foetal bone marrow, liver, thymus, and lymph nodes to simulate the human immune system.
Unfortunately, Republicans have gone to war against foetal tissue research and women’s reproductive freedoms to such an extent that our ability to conduct lifesaving medical research has been severely crippled. I found this out the hard way when two armed US Marshals banged on the door of my studio apartment in Nashville to serve me a Congressional subpoena from then-Congresswoman, now-Senator Marsha Blackburn. Having been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute research fellow at both Stanford and Duke Medical School, I had done research involving foetal kidneys to cure a deadly disease in babies called bilateral renal agenesis. That’s a disease where babies are born without any functional kidneys, and I wanted to find a way to save their lives. But because of it, my entire life was thrown into turmoil and upheaval, ultimately destroying my reputation and any chance of me finishing my surgical residency at Vanderbilt. Unfortunately, I was not the only medical researcher targeted by Marsha Blackburn. Dozens of other physicians, graduate students, professors, and ordinary American citizens were subjected to a witchhunt that ultimately ruined careers and squandered some of America’s best and most promising minds. Whereas President Trump makes headlines for firing the National Security Council’s pandemic response team and proposing cuts to the CDC that never materialised, it was Senator Blackburn and her House Select Panel on Infant Lives that truly caused lasting harm to our nation’s preparedness for a pandemic.
We’ve known about the dangers of coronaviruses since the SARS epidemic in 2002. Yet more than 18 years later we still don’t have a human vaccine for SARS that would have been useful as a blueprint to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. Much of this may be because of the ideological and religious war against foetal tissue hampering progress. In fact, even my own research model could have been helpful for studying the coronavirus, since the human foetal kidney has a high concentration of angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors that the coronavirus is known to target to gain entry into our cells.
After experiencing the Republican war on science on the front lines, I learned that discrimination, innuendo, fear, and suspicion are as much part and parcel of the American way of life as are the lofty ideals of freedom and justice. That’s why there is another aspect of the coronavirus epidemic that truly frightens me to my core.
As an Asian American physician, I am painfully aware that the coronavirus not only represents a severe public health challenge but also threatens the basic human rights and civil liberties of minorities like me. Social media has already been abuzz with racist memes of Chinese people eating bat soup or rats. It’s not a far leap for Asian Americans to be labelled as infesters like cockroaches. And if there is another Marsha Blackburn around the corner who uses fear and suspicion as ways to achieve power, the worst among us may turn racism and discrimination into violence.
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