No Vaccine in Sight
As the world shifts its focus from containment to a cure, it’s become urgent to face up to the dangers of our reliance on pharmaceutical and biotech industries built to serve Wall Street and shareholder value over human needs and public health. The case for removing patent-barriers and expanding government control over drug research and development was already strong and gaining traction before the Covid-19 pandemic. The events of recent months, says a growing alliance of public health experts and industry reform advocates, have further exposed the faults of the current model and bolstered the case for alternatives. “Under the patent-model that drives the behavior and priorities of the drug industry, companies have no reason to focus resources on a potential pandemic-level virus like Ebola and coronavirus, because the chances of it being used within the term of a patent is too low,” said Rohit Malpani, the former policy director for the Médecins Sans Frontières Access Campaign who has advised Oxfam. “It’s never been clearer that something has to change.”
A public option in pharma wouldn’t require starting from scratch. A ready-made foundation exists in the Department of Health and Human Services and the NIH system, already the world’s biggest investor in biomedical research. HHS is the natural home for a new directing body with authority, stature, and funding on par with the wartime OSRD, argues Dana Brown, director of the Next System Project at the Democracy Collaborative, a think tank. A 2019 report written by Brown, Medicine for All: The Case for a Public Option in the Pharmaceutical Industry, provides a blueprint for how a national pharmaceutical institute positioned inside NIH could coordinate with federal, state, and local public entities, including university and federal labs, Department of Veterans Affairs supply depots, and Postal Service offices. “The power is there, as is a good bit of the infrastructure, to build a public pharma sector that reprioritizes R&D and eliminates issues of cost-related access,” said Brown.