Pandemics have no borders. This adage should encourage consideration of the actuality that infectious diseases—one of many commonalities in the human experience—affects all people. However, not all people have the same access to the tools and medicines that help protect themselves against disease and ailments. The humanist intuition in all of us should recognize the disparity in access and be compelled to foster a global environment that promotes maximal health for all. To do so requires diligence and constant reflection on past and current policies that determine health globally, so that we can minimize iatrogenesis and move towards a healthier global community.
The advent of modern global medicine was seeded by military and political ambitions of the imperial world. European colonizers struggled to overcome diseases of the tropics during their military conquest in West Africa, which had been rightfully tokened the “White Man’s Grave.” For instance, in Sierra Leone during the early 19th century, disease swept away 40% of the military force each year. Investigation into diseases of the tropics brought innovation to treating Malaria, which was one of the harshest maladies conquerors faced. The antiviral quinine (an early biological derivative of the controversial COVID-19 drug hydroxychloroquine) became commonly used by colonizing forces and cut deaths by a third in some regions. Thus, imperial colonial ambitions were limited by the innovation brought by the advent of tropical medicine. Eventually, through many iterations, an international global health apparatus was formed to fight the worst malaises faced across the globe.
Today, a complicated collective web between private and public entities and global and community partners makes the global health infrastructure. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been a major advocate for health equity through universal primary care and social development and has asked World Leaders to move towards a globalized system of identifying, communicating, and fighting pandemics. In 2005, the WHO adopted the International Health Regulations (IHR) that set the standards for the current era of global health cooperation, which seeks to manage the international spread of disease. Disease is defined as an illness or medical condition, irrespective of origin or source, that presents or could present significant harm to humans.
Deficiencies in the IHR to foster global cooperation and optimize global health were laid bare during the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, as some citizens in high-income countries line up for their fourth shot, most citizens of low-income countries have not had the opportunity to receive one dose of any COVID-19 vaccine. The WHO is still working toward the goal of getting all low-income countries above the 10% fully vaccinated threshold through the COVAX initiative.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) has also played an important role in facilitating trade across borders and facilitating disputes over intellectual property through the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). TRIPS requires all 164 Member States to grant patents for any invention of pharmaceutical products or processes for a minimum of 20 years.
Retooling TRIPS and other intellectual property laws have been proposed as one way to better the global health community and increase access to lifesaving therapies in the developing world. Specifically, striking a new balance to favor global health and access to technologies over profits of corporations, which will require high-income countries to strengthen their roles in creating a healthier global community. One short-term solution to move towards these ideals is to loosen patent restrictions for the manufacture and delivery of much-needed technologies to low-income countries. Thus, allowing for a more humanistic global culture, so that all individuals have the opportunity to live unencumbered by unnecessary maladies.
Matthew Blakley graduated from Cornell University in 2018 with a B.S. in Human Biology, Health, and Society. During his time at Cornell, he conducted clinical research with the Cancer Research Foundation and published on familial blood disorders. After graduating, he conducted basic science research at Weill Cornell Medicine. Matthew broadened his understanding of the determinants of health and decided that he wanted to pursue a career in the legal profession.