The Case for a Free or Inexpensive Coronavirus VaccineRoundup
tags: historians, public health, Vaccination, coronavirus
Deborah Levine is a historian of medicine and associate professor in the department of health policy and management at Providence College.
On Wednesday, Alex Azar, President Trump’s secretary of health and human services, testified that he could not guarantee that a covid-19 vaccine would be made available to all Americans who need it. “We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable,” he said, “but we can’t control that price, because we need the private sector to invest. The priority is to get vaccines and therapeutics. Price controls won’t get us there.”
Azar’s logic here — that without the ability to set their own prices and to make a significant profit, private sector pharmaceutical companies would simply refuse to work on a vaccine or medication — might seem cruel in the face of a new, potentially scary epidemic disease. But it is not surprising. For decades, the pharmaceutical industry and its allies have argued that punishingly high drug prices are necessary if Americans wish to have new medications and innovative care. Without high profits to drive innovation, they argue, U.S. pharmaceutical companies would shutter, making their therapeutics unavailable even to those who could afford them.
But what they and Azar miss is that profit is not the only driver of innovation, and indeed relying on a profit-driven health-care system undermines the health and safety of all.
It wasn’t always this way. Take the example of the famously innovative physician and researcher Jonas Salk more than 65 years ago. When Salk’s team developed an effective polio vaccine that was approved for public use, he refused to patent it. Who owns the patent? “Well, the people, I would say,” he told journalist Edward R. Murrow in 1955. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”