Vaccines remain science’s best weapon against viruses. The Sars-CoV-1, Mers, Zika, Ebola epidemics provoked races to produce a vaccine. Yet to date only the efforts on Ebola have been successful, with a vaccine being approved last year. And as the leader of the UK’s Ebola response, Adrian Hill, told the Independent in 2014, “Unless there’s a big market it’s not worth the while of a mega-company…There was no business case to make an Ebola vaccine for the people who needed it most.”
Jason Schwartz, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, said to the Atlantic: “Had we not set the Sars vaccine research programme aside, we would have had a lot more of this foundational work that we could apply to this new, closely related virus.” Clinical trials take nearly a year at minimum, but sustaining basic research on viruses known to have epidemic potential means when a novel variant pops up, we’re not starting from zero each time.
The current set-up is often the worst of both worlds – too slow to pick up research on new threats because the money isn’t there, and too quick to drop it if it can’t be sure the money will be there in the future. It’s a highly market-dependent system, and the market usually fails us. Peter Piot, head of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, previously declared the entire research and development system “not fit for purpose” for epidemics.
“Pharmaceutical companies view Covid-19 as a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity,” said Gerald Posner, author of 'Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America.'“They’re all in that race,” said Posner, who described the potential pay-offs for winning the race as huge. The global crisis “will potentially be a blockbuster for the industry in terms of sales and profits,” he said, adding that “the worse the pandemic gets, the higher their eventual profit.”
When the coronavirus funding was being negotiated in the US some lawmakers insisted that it was “unacceptable if the rights to produce and market that vaccine were subsequently handed over to a pharmaceutical manufacturer through an exclusive license with no conditions on pricing or access, allowing the company to charge whatever it would like and essentially selling the vaccine back to the public who paid for its development.” The final aid package not only omitted language that would have limited drug makers’ intellectual property rights, it also left out language that had been in an earlier draft that would have allowed the federal government to take any action if it has concerns that the treatments or vaccines developed with public funds are priced too high.
“Those lobbyists deserve a medal from their pharma clients because they killed that intellectual property provision,” said Posner, who added that the omission of language allowing the government to respond to price gouging was even worse. “To allow them to have this power during a pandemic is outrageous.”
As the US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testified he couldn’t guarantee that a vaccine would be affordable as drug companies would have to recover their research costs.“We need the private sector to invest,” he said, “price controls won’t get us there.”
Pharmaceutical companies all around the world working as fast as they can to try to develop an effective vaccine against COVID-19. That is great—except these people are working in competition, not in collaboration. They all want to be the first to develop a patentable vaccine that will allow them to get very rich if it proves successful. National governments are neglecting the most effective and safe route to discovering one quickly: eschewing corporate profitability and intellectual property rights in favour of global cooperation through open and shared research. Capitalism assumes that intellectual property rights are legitimate, and that there’s no alternative to firms hiding their research and competing in parallel with each other. They justify the lucrative returns by arguing that research is expensive and that the pharmaceutical corporations are not charities, they have investors to reward. They tell us they require to reap the benefits of the market as an incentive.
What is forgotten is that the US government alone invests more than $40 billion a year in health R&D used by pharmaceutical companies through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and it has already spent around $700 million on coronavirus research. Remdesivir, the only drug the WHO thinks may have “real efficacy” in treating coronavirus, was first developed in partnership with the University of Alabama with a grant from the NIH. In his book Posner points to another example of private companies making exorbitant profits from drugs produced with public funding. The antiviral drug sofosbuvir, which is used to treat hepatitis C, stemmed from key research funded by the National Institutes of Health. That drug is now owned by Gilead Sciences, which charges $1,000 per pill — more than many people with hepatitis C can afford; Gilead earned $44 billion from the drug during its first three years on the market. Patents are actually hindering the development of a coronavirus vaccine, due to inefficiency resulting from secretive competition.
Imagine how much faster the research would advance if these researchers were working in collaboration, sharing their results with each other, and posting them on the web so that researchers throughout the world could learn from them. With the Human Genome Projectresearch was shared as soon as possible, because mapping the human genome was considered a common project that would benefit all humanity.