Covid-19 vaccines are a victory for public research, not ‘greed’ and ‘capitalism’

A medic prepares a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine to be administered to a patient.

Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, reportedly attributed the success of the COVID-19 vaccines to “capitalism” and “greed”. But he is wrong – the idea that private ingenuity and naked competition produced the vaccines is a complete fantasy.

Before COVID-19, the vaccine market was notoriously sluggish, taking between five and 15 years to develop a viable candidate. It is for this reason the current effort looks so remarkable.

For pharmaceutical companies, the incentives are poor. In April 2018, long before coronavirus emerged, a report by Goldman Sachs analysts proposed that providing a “one shot” cure for diseases could never be a “sustainable business model”.

That’s because, as Johnson rightly implies, pharmaceutical companies follow the money. In 2019, the global vaccines market size was US$47bn. Meanwhile sales of just four treatment drugs matched this volume of sales (Humira, used to treat rheumatoid arthritis; Keytruda, the cancer treatment; Revlimid, used to treat multiple myeloma; and Imbruvica, also a cancer drug).

Earlier coronavirus diseases, Sars and Mers, had no vaccine. Both had candidates initially tested on animals that did not make it to human trials. The Ebola vaccine was finally approved in 2019, 16 years after it was first patented and a full six years after the start of the epidemic in West Africa. Read more…

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