Humans hinder their own progress

Mazen al-Sudairi

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Galileo’s trial always comes up as an example of the dark ages and stands as a testament of how man has since entered an era of reason and enlightenment, while blaming that old backwardness on religious and sectarian fanaticism. However, this fanaticism mainly stemmed from humans’ fear of the change of knowledge. Now that we are in the era of reason, have things changed? I do not believe so; humans are still throwing roadblocks in their own way.

Despite the scientific developments people achieved, fear has always pushed them to put a spoke in their own wheels. Let’s take the pharmaceutical industry as an example, which is one of the most critical industries for all of humanity. Thanks to its growth, human life expectancy around the globe has increased from 50 years in the 1950s to 74 years last year, according to the World Bank. Some medical innovations have changed human life and society alike, such as birth control pills. These contraceptive pills played a bigger role than both laws and changing public convictions in increasing women's participation in the labor market and further reducing the salary gap between them and men.

However, the growth of pharma is facing several obstacles. First, by nature, drugs become obsolete quickly. Based on the law of diminishing returns, following a product’s release, returns grow at first before slowing down and declining with time. However, this happens more quickly in the pharmaceutical industry, which is an expected result due to improved health awareness in societies as people have become smart enough to stay away from anything that could cause them diseases. Thus, the pharmaceutical industry needs to accelerate both its innovation and production.

The second obstacle is the complicated drug approval laws and the slow process that could last several years. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, many people began questioning the usefulness and value of such laws. Some laws were suspended due to the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, which is killing thousands of people every day, not to mention the economic crises it causes and high debts across the globe, and their particular impact on developing and poor countries.

Despite all these obstacles, COVID-19 vaccines have proved its efficacy as it is reducing the number of confirmed cases. Since February 8, the number of cases has been decreasing, coinciding with an increase in the number of vaccinations administered in the US and the UK. COVID-19 vaccines went through several steps before approval, with each step lasting several months for close examination. In the third stage, vaccine trials included 30,000 to 40,000 participants for various vaccines before obtaining the approval of various medical organizations. Since then, many prominent doctors and leaders around the world received the vaccination.

This success makes us question existing traditional pharmaceutical regulations. These laws are a burden on the medical industry, and they discourage investment in medical companies. For instance, Pfizer shares only increased slightly whereas the rise in Moderna’s shares is due to the drastic change in the company's business model after receiving $1 billion in subsidies as, according to Bloomberg, Moderna made under $60 million in sales in 2019.

On another front, investment in cancer research is limited compared to other global investments, although the number of people who are suffering from all types of cancers has not decreased since 1990. Increasing profits can encourage pharmaceutical companies to fight diseases that might not have been commercially feasible otherwise due to the low number of affected people. According to the World Health Organization, there are currently 7,000 rare diseases, and the experimentations and studies on them are limited and scanty. As for diseases afflicting poor countries, their total research expenditures remain low, hardly reaching $4 billion, 80% of which come from governments and charities while pharmaceutical companies pay them no attention. If these companies made better profits, they could contribute more to fight rare diseases and help poor communities.

It is true that religious fanaticism and power have abated, but reason and logic have not fully prevailed yet because of the fear we spoke of before. Despite the development achieved in universities and regulatory organizations, the rigidity of legislations and laws is still impeding human progress as it is man himself who brought the rigidity of the inquisition tribunals to our contemporary times.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Saudi Arabian outlet al-Riyadh.

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