Stephen Buranyi has an Op-Ed in the Times today arguing that the new Covid-19 vaccines shouldn't make us feel better about big pharmaceutical companies. Buranyi obviously hates Big Pharma and tells us gleefully about all the movies in which they appear as villains. In a sense he is right about the current moment, because none of the vaccines was actually created by a big firm:
Every day now there are stories about the Pfizer vaccine (a collaboration between Pfizer and the German biotech company BioNTech); the Moderna vaccine (a partnership between the National Institutes of Health and Moderna); and the AstraZeneca vaccine (a front-running non-mRNA candidate, in fact created by scientists at the University of Oxford and developed and distributed by AstraZeneca). . . .The story is actually much longer and more complex than Buranyi lays out, involving decades-long partnerships among governments, universities, philanthropists, and private firms. The role of the big firms in the current crisis has been to supply their expertise at manufacturing, testing, and distribution.
The mRNA vaccines in which people are now staking so much hope wouldn’t exist without public support through every step of their development. Moderna is not a pharma giant. The company, founded in 2010 after a group of American university professors acquired support from a venture capitalist, has been working on this technology for years. But Moderna’s original work rests on earlier discoveries by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania who have received funding for their research from the National Institutes for Health.
Once the race for a vaccine began, governments supercharged their efforts. Moderna has received about $2.5 billion in federal research and supply funding over the past year from the government’s Operation Warp Speed program, as well as shared technology the N.I.H. had developed for previous coronavirus vaccines. The N.I.H. also provided extensive logistical support, overseeing clinical trials for tens of thousands of patients.
Pfizer, meanwhile, likes to say that it eschews federal money to maintain independence. But it is co-producing and distributing a vaccine from BioNTech, a company that received more than $440 million in funding from the German federal government. The vaccine is based on BioNTech’s technology, with Pfizer stepping in to speed up development and manufacturing.
It seems to me that the rapid development of so many vaccines is a triumph, not for either big business or government, but for our mixed system. This argument reminds me in a way of what we saw in the computer world in the 1990s, when various libertarian geeks touted all the tech advances made in garages and predicted the demise of both governments and big firms. But without giant companies to make things like super-pure silicon, and the billions governments had poured into the development of computers and communications infrastructure, there wouldn't have been any chips for garage geeks to work with or networks for them to plug into.
In our politics we often have angry debates about the private sector vs. the government, but it can be difficult to say where one begins and the other ends. I personally see little point in trying to draw such a line. To me, things like the personal computer, social networks, and mRNA vaccines are products of our culture, and by that I mean something very broad and deep: competitive educational systems, a widespread delight in tinkering with new sorts of machines, a can-do mindset about our ability to solve technical problems, our enormous pool of scientific and technical knowledge, our ability to throw hundreds of billions of dollars into new economic sectors, our willingness to heap rewards on scientists and investors who make or fund the most useful advances.
There are now more scientists in the world (8 million) than there were people in England when the scientific revolution got under way (5 million).
The challenge we face, as I see it, is to promote fairness in our system, cutting back on the obscene wealth of the biggest capitalist "winners," and doing more for the poor and ignored, without undermining the amazing productivity and creativity of our civilization. Absolutely the big pharmaceutical companies have committed crimes, and this seems to be a recurring problem created by the profit incentives of capitalism; but on the other hand no socialist system has ever approached the wealth and creativity of ours.
I make my living as a contractor to the US government. The reason agencies like the National Park Service hire people like me to do archaeology (and design roads, and build Visitor Centers, and a thousand other things) rather than doing it themselves is that my company can make money and still do it cheaper. The savings are created by the discipline of the market; if our price gets to high or our work too slow, someone else will underbid us. Governments also find it much easier to discipline or fire private firms than their own agencies. I regularly hear stories from my government friends about projects that were initiated by some government group years ago but never finished. If we never finished our projects, we would get fired; in fact we got our first contract with the National Park Service because the firm that held the contract before us couldn't finish their projects and got fired.
On the other hand I absolutely would not trust any capitalist entity with the long-term preservation of the world's natural and historical treasures.
So my personal experience is that a partnership between the government and private entities can achieve more than either could alone. And that seems to be the lesson of the new vaccines, and of a thousand other scientific and technical advances.