March 21, 2021
The industry needs some good PR right now. After all, its refusal to share its vaccine technology could end up costing millions of lives in the developing world. In addition, it could mean trillions of dollars of lost output as countries need to shut down large segments of their economy.
But the NYT is there to help. It ran a lengthy article about the issue, which contains much useful information, but it maintains a framing favorable to the pharmaceutical industry. At the end of the piece, after giving the argument for broader sharing of technology and over-riding the industry’s government-granted patent monopolies, the piece tells readers:
“But governments cannot afford to sabotage companies that need profit to survive.”
If the reporters/editors had read their piece, they would know that the companies in question had already made large profits, through being paid directly for their research and building manufacturing facilities, as was the case with Moderna and BioNtech (Pfizer’s German partner), or with advance purchase agreements. No one is suggesting that these companies should not make a profit, so it is not clear on what planet this assertion originated.
It is possible to make profits directly on government contracts, as major military contractors like Lockheed and Boeing could explain to the New York Times. The advantage of having direct contracts for biomedical research is that a requirement of the contract could be that all findings are fully open-source so that researchers all over the world can benefit from them. (I discuss a mechanism for direct funding in chapter 5 of Rigged [it’s free].)
If the U.S. had gone this route with Operation Warp Speed, any manufacturer anywhere in the world with the necessary expertise (all production technology would also be freely available), would be able to freely produce vaccines, as well as tests and treatments for the coronavirus. This would almost certainly allow the world to be vaccinated more quickly.
The piece also included another important assertion unsupported by any evidence. It told readers:
“But in Brussels and Washington, leaders are still worried about undermining innovation.”
It does not indicate how it knows what leaders in Brussels and Washington are actually “worried” about. It is certainly possible that politicians are concerned about keeping their pharmaceutical companies happy since they are powerful political actors. As the piece notes, these companies are concerned about profits, not innovation as an end in itself.
It is probably worth mentioning inequality in this piece. The NYT, like most intellectual types, has done considerable hand-wringing over inequality in recent years, both overall and racial inequality. It is a safe bet that giving more money to pharmaceutical companies will mean more inequality and certainly benefit whites far more than Blacks. It might be useful if the paper paid a little attention to the policies that create inequality instead of just bemoaning it as an unfortunate feature of the economy.
I should have also mentioned some of the ways in which we can see the potential value of open-sourcing technology as a way to foster innovation in the pandemic. Last month Pfizer announced that it had discovered a way to cut the production time of its vaccines in half. It also discovered that its vaccines don’t require super-cold storage, but can instead be kept at normal freezer temperatures for up to two weeks.
These are great discoveries that will allow more vaccines to be produced and make them easier to store and transport. However, unless we think that Pfizer’s engineers are the only people in the world who can innovate around the production and distribution of its vaccine, it is likely these discoveries would have come sooner if the technology had been open-sourced. Also, there are undoubtedly other ways to speed the manufacture and distribution of the vaccine that have not yet occurred to Pfizer’s engineers.