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Online press briefing: Vaccines—The COVID-19 Case for Public Pharmaceutical Research and Development

Friday, March 20, 2020, 12 noon-12:45 PM EDT

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Vaccines are critical to safeguarding public health as one of the most effective ways to prevent disease, including highly contagious diseases that can cause pandemics. But the for-profit pharmaceutical industry is neither prepared for nor incentivized to tackle growing public health challenges, like global pandemics.

Currently, the majority of basic pharmaceutical research and development (R&D) is paid for by the public. Vaccine development in particular is a long, expensive, and risky process with little potential for private gain, but huge public health pay-offs. But once the public has paid to develop a viable drug, the private sector gets the right to bring drugs “to market,” and can charge whatever it wants for the product—or decide not to market the medicine.So, vaccines and other medications we need are often priced excessively or are not available when we need them most.

For example, in early 2020, the FDA granted approval to the private pharma company Merck for an Ebola vaccine. However, recent research has shown that the Canadian government largely financed the development of the vaccine, and the private laboratory which bought the rights—and sold them to Merck for $50 million—actually hindered its development. 


The Solution: A Public Option

Public pharma is proven to work. Many vaccines—such as those for diphtheria, tetanus, polio, and measles—were often produced and distributed by the public sector in the past. When Jonas Salk—inventor of the polio vaccine—was asked who owned his patent, Salk replied: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” To this day, public pharmaceutical companies operate in Sweden, Brazil, and Thailand, among many other countries. 

Leading experts believe that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure widespread access to safe and effective vaccines that are developed with taxpayer money. In this virtual press briefing, hear why the U.S. government should develop and manufacture vaccines and other essential medicines so that we get the medicines we need, when we need them and at prices we can afford.



Adam Gaffney, M.D. is Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a pulmonologist and critical care physician at the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA), an organization committed to the health of the underserved. Dr. Gaffney’s healthcare research has been published in the Lancet, the Annals of Internal Medicine, British Medical Journal, Chest, the European Respiratory Journal, and elsewhere. He serves as the President of Physicians for a National Health Program. 

Ameet Sarpatwari, Ph.D., J.D. is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, an Associate Epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Assistant Director of the Program On Regulation, Therapeutics, And Law (PORTAL) within the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics. His research draws upon his interdisciplinary training as an epidemiologist and lawyer and focuses on the effects of laws and regulations on therapeutic development, approval, use, and related public health outcomes. 

Dana Brown is the Director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative, a national research and development lab for the democratic economy, and the author of the report Medicine for All: The Case for a Public Option in the Pharmaceutical Industry.

Alex Lawson is the Executive Director of Social Security Works, the convening member of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition—a coalition made up of over 340 national and state organizations representing over 50 million Americans.

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