Kyoto Sucks, But Malaria is Worse

10 Oct

By Alicia Feuillet

I don’t take issue with 99% of what Bjorn  Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus says about the economic realities of fighting global warming using the Kyoto Protocol (i.e. it sucks).  Although I am usually averse to anything that looks remotely like Bentham’s hedonic calculus when dealing with people lives, he does make several well made points.  However, for such an “innovative” thinking, I was disappointed by his thoughts on how to combat the 3 % up tick in new malaria infections (15 million people in just the first year) over the next century:

On the other hand, we could spend $3 billion annually — 2 percent of the protocol’s cost — on mosquito nets and medication and cut malaria incidence almost in half within a decade. Malaria death rates are rising in sub-Saharan Africa, but this has nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with poverty: Poor and corrupt governments find it hard to implement and fund the spraying and the provision of mosquito nets that would help eradicate the disease. Yet for every dollar we spend saving one person through policies like the Kyoto Protocol, we could save 36,000 through direct intervention.

Malaria is an incredibly devastating disease.  40% of the world’s population (2.5 billion people) lives in malaria endemic areas, it significantly lowers the quality of life (snarky economists read productivity), 1 million die each year including 1 child every 30 seconds.  Although vector control through the use of heavy insecticides is highly effective, it will not eradicate malaria. 

The problem that Bjorn conveniently ignores is that the overwhelming majority of malaria infections are concentrated in areas which are unable to pay for vector treatments, let alone R&D development of malaria treatments/vaccines.  Meaning, there is little to no incentive for major pharmaceutical companies to invest R&D dollars into “marginal diseases” when they can just tweak their Lipitor patent and make billions of dollars each year.  Government labs and places like the WHO do work on drug/vaccine development, but 95% of new drug treatments come from private pharmaceutical companies.  Unfortunately, any amount of pressure place on private firms will lead to marginal efforts and discovery, but if companies are “made aware” of the economic incentives for developing drugs then we just might be able to eradicate the burden of malaria altogether.  Yes, those vicious corporate executives at Merck will make lots of money from drug sales, but as a humanitarian I will certainly take advantage of their greed if it means that 500 million people every year can be spared from malaria.  Ah, the power of the free market.

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