Friday, March 07, 2008

Coffee, malaria and bioethics

Quite an interesting reversal. Increasingly, when it comes to new drug development, the developing world acts as 'tasters' for the richer countries of the north, taking on the burdens of being research subjects and hoping against hope that they or their community can share in the benefits, though often the resultant drugs are for conditions that are not very prevalent in their own communities anyway.

So it is quite surprising to learn that safety and efficacy trials of new malaria vaccines will be conducted in ... Seattle. This rainy city is usually associated with grunge music, coffee and computer geeks, but it is apparently also home of a significant number of people willing to knowingly get bitten by malaria-carrying mosquitos. True, they will only be exposed to malaria strains that can be effectively treated with existing drugs, and the researchers will have fancy diagnostic tools to detect malaria infection among study participants right away. Still, it is awfully sporting (and even noble) of research volunteers in Seattle to participate in research on a disease that does not affect their community at all -- either that or they are in desperate need of quick cash for the Starbucks. Funny: when research is done in developing countries largely for the benefit of the developed world, we are liable to call it exploitation. When the reverse happens, it's called altruism. It is only against (senseless) global inequality that this makes sense.

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