April 18, 2020
The subhead of Bret Stephens’ latest column tells readers “there should be no big-pharma haters in pandemics.” The point is that researchers at Gilead Sciences, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies, are working tirelessly on the testing of remdesivir, which at the moment is the most promising treatment for the coronavirus. Stephens’ column focuses on Diana Brainard, the lead researcher on the project. Somehow the fact that Dr. Brainard is apparently a dedicated researcher is supposed to mean that we should love Big Pharma.
Stephens is apparently unaware of the debates over access to medicine over the last three decades, which is understandable, given that he is a conservative columnist at the New York Times. This battle has nothing to do with whether Big Pharma had dedicated researchers, the issue is the ability of Big Pharma to get government-granted patent monopolies over life-saving medicines, especially when much of the research was paid for by the government, which is very much the case with remdesivir.
We do need to pay people to do the work that Dr. Brainard is doing, but that doesn’t require patent monopolies. Economists have discovered that many people will work for money. The government could just pay Dr. Brainard and her team for her work. This would have the great advantage that not only would it mean remdesivir would be available as a cheap generic, but all the findings along the way would be open-sourced for researchers around the world to see and comment on. This would likely be a huge help in moving forward with the research.
So yes, we absolutely should hate Big Pharma in this pandemic. Its quest for patent monopolies has almost certainly slowed down the effort to find effective treatments and vaccines. And by the way, there is a huge amount of money at stake with patent monopolies in prescription drugs, likely over $400 billion a year (more than $4,000 per household). This is more than five times the size of the annual food stamp budget that gets Mr. Stephens’ conservative friends so upset.