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Innovating Against Injustice in Health Care

The biotech industry is not doing enough to mitigate the social determinants of disparities in health outcomes and access to innovative medical treatments. Companies could address these harmful imbalances with equitable R&D funding, an inclusive approach to clinical trials, and investment in compassionate-use programs.

CAMBRIDGE – Medical innovation has progressed exponentially over the past half-century. And yet, the persistence of health inequality limits the potential benefits of scientific and technological advances that could save or improve lives.

The debate over the allocation of vaccines and therapeutics during the COVID-19 pandemic is a vivid example of this inequality. In September 2022, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed yet again that ending the pandemic requires equitable access to vaccines; at the time, only 19% of the population in low-income countries were inoculated, compared to 75% in high-income countries.

Despite this imbalance, richer countries suffered greater losses of life years per capita than poorer countries – a paradox highlighting how health inequality exists at many levels. In the United States, for example, cumulative data show that people of color experienced higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death than white people. The disparity can be traced to social determinants of health, the non-medical factors that play a critical role in clinical outcomes. Suffering from institutional and structural discrimination, reduced health literacy, or cultural and language barriers makes it difficult to live the longest, healthiest life possible.

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