Is anyone else left underwhelmed by the unbearable arrogance of Mark Zuckerberg? Not content with saving Africa through his Internet.org project to get “everyone in the continent” online, he’s now decided that his money can eradicate all disease. Not just Alzheimer’s, not just the many variations of cancer, not just HIV, not just the Zika virus, not just rare genetic abnormalities and not just the common cold: all disease, because that’s what $3bn can get you. Why did none of us think of this before?
Following the birth of their first child Max last year, Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan pledged to give away 99 per cent of their wealth to philanthropic causes. Now I have to admit this is slightly more inspiring than the widespread reports Jay Z had decided to stop using the word “bitch” after the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy (a change of heart that was later denied by his publicists, FYI, so expect the B-word to continue populating Jay’s lyrics for the foreseeable future), but it’s still, at best, hopelessly naïve and incredibly American.
In the land of the free, where the idea of a national health service is analogous with communism and you only get a cancer scan if you can cough up the cash, it must be so easy to believe that you can buy permanent good health for everyone on the planet. After all, you can buy yourself shiny new organs, surrogate women to carry your babies, behaviour-modifying medication for your troublesome kids, priority passes for dialysis, and fancy chambers with room service and 4K TVs to recover in after your operation – hell, if you’ve got enough money, you can even make more by charging people with allergies extortionate amounts for the EpiPens their lives depend upon. So why not buy healthcare for everyone? Then nobody will be sick any more, right? Right?
Unfortunately, it’s inevitable that this well-meaning deal will crash and burn as spectacularly as the SpaceX rocket carrying the Zuckerberg satellite that was supposed to save Africa. Because as much as the couple believes $3bn can “cure, prevent or manage all disease within our children’s lifetime”, the reality of medicine suggests otherwise.
The looming “antibiotic apocalypse” is one example of why money can’t buy you a cure for everything: no new strain of antibiotic has been found since the eighties, and a fairly hefty chunk of the medical community feels pessimistic about the idea that we’ll ever find one again. Antibiotic resistance is at an all-time high, for a number of reasons including the meat industry’s overuse of them in certain countries (there are many places where factory farmed animals spend their entire lives on “preventative” antibiotics because their cramped living conditions provide an ideal breeding ground for infectious diseases. Introducing these constant doses of antibiotics into the food chain is highly unwise for a number of very obvious reasons) and over-prescription by doctors. There’s a good chance we can’t tackle this by dedicating resources to finding more, simply because there’s only a finite amount of resources available on our planet. The problem – the biggest threat to humanity, in fact, so quite a big problem – is predominantly a sociocultural one, rather than one you can throw billions at and hope it goes away.
Similarly, some of the diseases Zuckerberg specifically namedropped as in line for a sudden cure – cancer, heart disease and neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s – have known lifestyle components (smoking, urban pollution, processed meat consumption, alcohol and obesity, to name a few). In order to fully eradicate or manage these diseases, we have to open a dialogue with citizens and governments about how to reduce these risks. Unless we’re using the money to build superhumans which are impervious to high blood pressure, arterial inflammation and brain cell death, lab research can only take us so far.
And then there’s the fact that viruses, by their very nature, tend to mutate. That’s why we see sudden outbreaks of diseases we thought had come under control, like Ebola, or the emergence of new diseases which have become transmittable from animals to humans (see: swine flu, avian flu, HIV, rabies, some forms of hepatitis, and so on.) And that’s why medical research can never have an endpoint in sight: it has to be ongoing, continually funded, and constantly evolving in order to stay one step ahead of the constantly evolving viruses, fungi and bacteria that threaten humanity’s existence. One person’s money at one time isn’t enough; governments and whole societies have to commit to long-term, cross-generational plans to have any hope of achieving Zuckerberg’s lofty aspirations. Again, that’s a sociocultural issue.
And let’s not forget that humans themselves are evolving, sometimes with catastrophic effects. New genetic abnormalities continue to present themselves across the world year on year – remember the superstrong ‘Baby Superman’ who appeared in our midst a decade ago? That’s the non-harmful, news-friendly side of it. The more harmful one concerns random genetic mutations, deletions, additions, and developments that happen either before birth or during a person’s lifetime. My own sister developed a life-threatening autoimmune disorder so rare that only 200 people in the world have ever presented with it five years ago; doctors in 2016 still have no idea where it came from or why. If someone had committed $3bn to healthcare two generations ago, she wouldn’t have benefited in the slightest.
It’s a nice idea that if you become rich enough, you can start to play God – but there are clear limits to Zuckerberg’s apparent omnipotence. $3bn is a wonderful gift to medicine, which will undoubtedly be used for some very positive research, facilities and treatments. Zuckerberg and Chan are being wonderfully philanthropic and unselfish in their huge donation of funds. But the Facebook founder’s claim that lots of money can magically render all disease a minor, manageable inconvenience is unnecessarily grandiose. Killer disease will always exist – everybody dies of something – and sometimes accepting your limits is just as important as shooting for the moon.
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