by Joshua Cho, published on FAIR, April 2, 2020
When Dr. Jonas Salk was asked in a legendary interview about who owned the patent on the effective polio vaccine he and his team had developed, he acknowledged that their achievement belonged to “the people,” and likened efforts to profit off their innovation to be as unethical as trying to patent the Sun (Washington Post, 3/2/20). Their story is a fitting reminder in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic, as Salk and his team understood that universal no-cost or low-cost access to their innovation was central to their mission of eradicating the scourge of their day.
According to scientists who are closely studying the novel Covid-19 pathogen’s genetic code, the coronavirus’ especially slow mutation rate makes the promise of a potential vaccine especially potent. It would likely only require a single vaccine that would grant immunity for a long time—like the vaccines for measles and chickenpox—rather than requiring new vaccines every year, as do rapidly mutating viruses like the flu. When it comes to infectious diseases like Covid-19, vaccines are the strongest tools health officials have—since vaccination can potentially protect people from getting infected and limit the virus’ ability to spread—making it absolutely critical that the world discovers and shares a vaccine as quickly as possible.
Yet, despite the daily exponential growth in confirmed cases, and death tolls putting the US on pace to be the epicenter of the pandemic, corporate media coverage of the global race for a coronavirus vaccine marginalizes the most effective and safe route to discovering one quickly: eschewing corporate profitability and intellectual property rights in favor of international cooperation through open and shared, publicly funded research.
Framing the search for a coronavirus vaccine as a “global arms race,” the New York Times (3/19/20) declared that “what began as a question of who would get the scientific accolades, the patents and ultimately the revenues from a successful vaccine is suddenly an issue of urgent national security.” Although the Times cited several sources urging international cooperation between pharmaceutical companies and nations, the paper also suggested that the threat of nationalizing companies showing promise will “create a complication” during a time when the world is “trying to get a vaccine made as quickly as possible,” implying that the most efficient way to obtain a vaccine quickly would be to incentivize pharmaceutical companies to compete with the lure of hoarding profits at the end.
The Times also spun this “scramble” as the “harsh reality” of nations being just as selfish as the US, as “any new vaccine that proves potent against the coronavirus” is “sure to be in short supply as governments try to ensure that their own people are the first in line.” The Times ominously warned that nations don’t want to be “beholden to a foreign power for access to the drugs that are needed in a crisis,” and played into the racist trope of untrustworthy Chinese people (FAIR.org, 3/24/20) when it portrayed crucial Chinese aid to pandemic-stricken countries, which “once would have looked to Europe or the United States,” as “signs” that “China is using the moment for geopolitical advantage.”
While China is devoting serious efforts to find a vaccine, and has filed defensive patents (which won’t be enforced if unnamed foreign companies collaborate with them) on the use of remdesivir to treat coronaviruses, it’s also true that top Chinese researchers have stated that they intend to launch cooperative efforts to test overseas, if initial test results indicate that their vaccine is safe and effective. In stark contrast to reported efforts by the Trump administration to poach German pharmaceutical firm CureVac to develop a vaccine reserved for the US’s exclusive use, and continued genocidal sanctions on Venezuela and Iran (FAIR.org, 2/6/19, 3/25/20; CounterSpin, 5/2/19), China has urged an end to the US’s illegal unilateral sanctions, and has delivered medical expertise and supplies across the world.
Newsweek’s “China’s Race for a Coronavirus Vaccine Could Produce an Unsafe Solution, Former Ambassador Warns” (3/20/20) continued corporate media’s Yellow Peril coverage, reporting on former US ambassador to China Max Baucus’ warning that the race for a vaccine “might lead the Chinese government to cut corners in the hunt for one”:
“The big danger here is that China will move too quickly to develop a vaccine and it’ll be unsafe,” he said, noting this would be less likely in the US, where bodies like the Food and Drug Administration oversee generally tighter regulations. Racing to the vaccine is “a double-edged sword,” Baucus added.
Any suggestion that US pharmaceutical companies might “cut corners” in their race to monopolize profits from a coronavirus vaccine was omitted by Newsweek, even though there have been prior reports (Reuters, 3/11/20; New Republic, 3/16/20) on US drugmakers skipping the animal testing phase, or proceeding simultaneously with human trials, as there are no US laws requiring them to complete testing on animals before moving onto human experiments.
This is especially dangerous, considering how rushed testing carries the risks of disease enhancement, where the vaccine could worsen, rather than protect against infection, and particularly when coronaviruses are more likely to produce this kind of response. Despite this, the New York Post (3/26/20) reported—without any pushback—that US scientists are arguing for the ability to “sidestep ethical restrictions and infect healthy people with a small amount of the Covid-19 virus to speed up the race for a vaccine.”
Reports from corporate media on US pharmaceutical companies taking shortcuts in their research, along with numerous articles purporting to explain why vaccine development takes such a long time, presume that intellectual property rights are legitimate, and that there’s no alternative to firms hiding their research and competing in parallel with each other.
Reporting why it will take months before a coronavirus vaccine will be available, Business Insider (3/24/20) explained that “vaccine development is really expensive “ and that it’s “hard to know the return on investment for these companies,” before pitching “philanthropic groups” as a potential answer. The Los Angeles Times’ “Why Will It Take So Long to Make a Coronavirus Vaccine That Can Prevent Covid-19?” (3/12/20) reported that a potential vaccine could take anywhere from 12 to 18 months, noting that “the labs that create a successful vaccine probably won’t be the ones that are able to scale up,” and that “many companies may be wary of investing the resources it takes to manufacture a new vaccine when the epidemic could end before there’s a chance to bring it to market.”
The New Yorker’s “How Long Will It Take to Develop a Coronavirus Vaccine?” (3/8/20) reported that a coronavirus vaccine being developed and distributed at a global scale within 12 to 18 months would be an “unprecedented, remarkable, even revolutionary achievement,” as “no other vaccine has come close to being developed that quickly.” Citing Rachel Grant, the advocacy and communications director for the Gates Foundation–founded Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the New Yorker explained:
“The resources and expertise sit in biotech and pharma, and they’ve got their business model,” Grant said. “They’re not charities. They can’t do this stuff for free.”
Curiously absent from all of these articles is any interrogation of a business model that involves cutting corners and endangering human life, privatizing the profits of drugs developed at public expense through patents, and making vaccines unaffordable through rampant price-gouging (FAIR.org, 4/1/20).
When corporate media aren’t ignoring alternatives to profit-driven vaccine development, they run op-eds praising it as the ideal solution. Wall Street Journal editorial board member Kim Strassel (3/19/20) credited the “profit motive and competition liberals detest” for the “resourcefulness” US companies are showing during this pandemic, and had “Drug companies will save lives, even as Bernie Sanders is denouncing them” as the subhead.
Politico ran an op-ed by National Review editor Rich Lowry, “Only the ‘Crooks’ of the Pharmaceutical Industry Can Save Us Now” (3/18/20), that fawned over pharmaceutical companies, claiming that they provide an “indisputable boon to public health” and “routinely create medical miracles for which we all should be grateful.” Trying to justify patents, Lowry argued that they “ensure that companies get the benefit of research that is expensive, time-consuming and risky,” and asserted that if corporations don’t have intellectual property protections to reap “market benefits,” then much of their “research would dry up.”
But as economist Mariana Mazzucato (Guardian, 3/18/20) has pointed out, the US government invests more than $40 billion a year in health R&D used by pharmaceutical companies through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and has spent around $700 million on coronavirus research, more than any other country. Until 1995, the NIH actually had the authority to require companies to make drugs based on public research available at reasonable prices (Intercept, 3/2/20). But when amendments to restore the authority were brought to the Senate in 2000, then-Sen. Joe Biden—the presidential candidate who has received the most money from the pharmaceutical industry this election cycle—was one of eight Democrats who voted with Republicans to kill the amendment (Sludge, 3/17/20).
Remdesivir, the only drug the World Health Organization thinks may have “real efficacy” in treating coronavirus, was actually developed in partnership with the public University of Alabama with a grant from the NIH, despite being monopolized by Gilead Sciences (Intercept, 3/23/20). Hence Mazucatto argues that coronavirus vaccines and treatments developed with taxpayer money should be produced “without giving an exclusive license to private manufacturers.”
Critics of market-driven health R&D also include people like Bill Gates and Dr. Peter Hotez, who testified that he and his team had developed a promising SARS coronavirus vaccine that could’ve been used to speed up research for Covid-19—or possibly provide cross-protection—but couldn’t test it on humans due to a lack of funding, as corporations have little financial incentive in pursuing preventive vaccines.
Economist Dean Baker (Beat the Press, 3/12/20) has also pointed out the moral and utilitarian absurdities of intellectual property rights, especially during a pandemic. He argues (Truthout, 3/2/20) that patents are actually slowing the development of a coronavirus vaccine, due to inefficient redundancies and inevitable waste resulting from secretive competition:
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….
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.
A coronavirus vaccine could be developed under the precedent set by the collaborative Human Genome Project, where research was shared as soon as possible, because mapping the human genome was considered a common project that would benefit all humanity. Especially when a Trump administration official like Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar rejects the notion that coronavirus treatments and vaccines should be affordable to everyone (Intercept, 3/19/20), and when industry lobbyists remove language threatening intellectual property rights from a coronavirus spending package (Intercept, 3/12/20), there needs to be pressure on the government to use all its power to make a coronavirus vaccine accessible to anyone who needs it.
*Featured Image: Foung-Dahn Tron, research associate at RNA Medicines Company Arcturus Therapeutics in SanDiego California, conducting research on a vaccine for coronavirus. ~Bing Guan, Reuters
Joshua Cho is a writer based in Virginia.