March 02, 2020
To the amazement of millions, President Trump continually outdoes himself when it comes to venality and foolishness. The latest milestone in this category was his recent effort to keep people in his administration from making public statements about the coronavirus epidemic out of fear of hurting the stock market.
The ridiculousness of Trump’s market fixation should be apparent with a moment’s thought. If the virus turns out to be a major epidemic in the United States and much of the rest of the world, it won’t really matter what the Trump administration says about it. There won’t be any way to conceal its impact.
On the other hand, if the coronavirus turns out not to be a big deal, any declines in the market due to concerns about its spread will be temporary. The market will bounce back after three or four weeks, as though the coronavirus had never happened. So, Trump wanted people in his administration to keep quiet about the virus to prevent a temporary downturn in the stock market?
Now that events have forced him and his administration to talk about the coronavirus, he has turned to blaming the market’s plunge on the “FAKE NEWS” hyping false fears. He also blamed the Democratic presidential candidates for their comments in the last debate.
Yet, it is hard to believe that we have a president who would risk the public’s health in order to avoid a downturn in the market, which he in turn fears will damage his approval ratings. Welcome to the modern Republican Party.
We are fortunate that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is staffed by many dedicated professionals who will do everything possible to protect the public from the spread of the disease. The big question is whether Trump will allow them to do their job and provide them with the necessary resources. (The CDC is one of the agencies targeted for major cuts in Trump’s 2021 budget.)
Beyond the flood of nonsense coming from the Trump administration on this issue, there are more basic questions that need to be asked. Many companies are racing to develop a vaccine against the disease. If they are successful, this could, in principle, stem the spread of coronavirus, as the vaccine is mass-produced and shipped around the world.
This is only true in principle since, even if we have a vaccine, we have no guarantee it will be affordable. As Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testified, we can’t say whether a newly invented vaccine will be widely affordable, since a company that develops one will hold a patent monopoly and will be able to charge pretty much whatever they want.
This should get us very upset for two reasons. The first one is obvious. It’s likely that any vaccine that is developed will be relatively cheap to manufacture and distribute. If it is expensive, it will only be because the government will arrest anyone who produces the vaccine in competition with the patent holder. It is the government-granted monopoly that would make a vaccine expensive, not anything inherent to the production process or the normal workings of the market.
The other reason the vaccine story should get us angry is the research process itself. We have people around the world working as fast as they can to try to develop an effective vaccine against this dangerous disease.
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. 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.
This alternative is possible if we had a different mechanism for financing research. In fact, we do have an alternative: direct public funding. That should not be a strange idea. The U.S. government already provides more than $40 billion a year to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for biomedical research. Funding for the CDC and other agencies may push the total to close to $50 billion, so having the federal government pay for research should not be a strange idea.
We would obviously need considerably more funding if we were to replace the money paid by the industry through patent-supported research. We would also likely change the process, with less control by the NIH, if we were to expand funding. Nonetheless, direct funding is clearly a viable alternative. (I outline one alternative route in Chapter 5 of my book Rigged.)
One additional benefit of replacing patent monopoly support of biomedical research is that it would largely eliminate the incentive for drug companies to push their drugs by claiming that they are safer or more effective than is actually the case, as happened with the opioid crisis.
In short, the coronavirus should be yet another lesson as to why there is a better alternative to patent monopolies for financing biomedical research.