While most of us understand the basic principles of supply and demand, and many of us agree that with the proper checks and balances capitalism seems to work, there is an aspect of the free market economy that has of late reared its ugly head: profiteering.

What profiteering is and how it can be harmful

The most basic definition of profiteering is to seek an “excessive or unfair profit, especially on a black market.” Case in point: the individuals who, when they first heard that hand sanitizer and masks would be helpful to people and communities during the COVID-19 outbreak, went out and bought ALL of the hand sanitizer and masks available in their community and online.

Next, they hoarded these much-needed safety items only to sell them for many times the face value to people who were sincerely afraid for their lives or in dire need.

This is profiteering on a small scale. The bigger picture, and perhaps more pernicious and nefarious profiteering happens when companies (such as Amazon and eBay ) allow “bad actors” to artificially raise prices on necessary basic health items during a global health crisis.

Profiteering in big pharma

This profiteering behavior is much like that of Martin Shkreli, the former hedge fund manager and convicted felon whose company Turing bought the manufacturing license for the antiparasitic drug Daraprim. Shkreli, who bears the moniker “the most hated man in America,” raised the drug’s price from just over $13 a pill to a whopping $750 per pill.

Profiteering and the COVID-19 tests

What worries most people is not only that testing is not yet widely available but that it will be prohibitively expensive for many people once it does become available. Scientist and former Harvard Medical School  professor William A. Haseltine has written an insightful article about how the COVID-19 genome amplification and antibodies tests could be made accessible to all of us in the United States at a cost that all can afford.

Haseltine says that these tests could cost between 50 cents and $5 per test, based on similar testing for hepatitis C in Egypt on 65 million people. The cost for treatment for Egyptians after testing positive was $45. Similar treatment for those in the United States is $85,000 for the same care regime.

To knock out COVID-19 everywhere,  Haseltine states that three things must happen: International patent pooling, bipartisan drug legislation that limits the cost of the test, and making the test accessible to all people. The biggest hurdle to providing accessible, affordable testing to everyone is one thing: big pharma’s propensity for profiteering.

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