Home > Uncategorized > The Neanderthal protectionists at the Washington Post don’t care about getting the world vaccinated

The Neanderthal protectionists at the Washington Post don’t care about getting the world vaccinated

from Dean Baker

You can’t get a graduate education (or undergrad) in economics without hearing a thousand times that protectionism is bad. When you get to actually deal with policy issues, you discover that only protectionism that benefits ordinary workers is bad, protectionism that benefits high-end workers and corporate profits is sacred.

This is exactly the point of the Washington Post editorial condemning efforts to suspend patent monopolies and other protections of intellectual products on pandemic-related vaccines, treatments, and tests.  To make its case the Post does some name-calling and double-talk.

In the name-calling category, we are told the idea of a free people’s vaccine is “is more slogan than solution.” A little later it appears as a “chimera.” We get it, the Post doesn’t like it.

On the double-talk front, the Post tells us:

“The most salient fact is that patents on vaccines are not the central bottleneck, and even if turned over to other nations, would not quickly result in more shots. This is because vaccine manufacturing is exacting and time-consuming.”

Arguing over the “central bottleneck” is hardly worth anyone’s time. The demand is not just that patents be suspended, but that the technology needed to produce vaccines (and tests and treatments) be freely shared for the duration of the pandemic. It is amazing that the Post somehow does not realize this fact, or alternatively has deliberately decided to misrepresent the position it is criticizing.

The sharing of technology would mean that Pfizer, Moderna, and other producers of vaccines would share detailed descriptions of their manufacturing technology, conduct webinars, and provide hands-on assistance to manufacturers around the world to enable them to produce their vaccines on a large scale.  They can be paid for this, but they will have little choice in the matter. If they don’t agree, the government can offer large payments to their top engineers (e.g. $1 million a month) to share their knowledge directly, while indemnifying them from future legal actions by their former employers.

As far as the time involved, it’s not zero, but we know it is not all that long. The vaccines did not exist last March, yet these companies were able to produce large quantities by November. Presumably, we can assume at least the same speed going forward. Of course, it would have been much better if we had followed this path at the start of the pandemic, as some of us advocated at the time, or at least in October when South Africa and India introduced their resolution at the World Trade Organization.

Perhaps the most stunning part of the editorial is the warning about incentives:

“It is true that pharmaceutical companies stand to profit handsomely from monopolies on individual patented vaccines. It is also true that stripping away their intellectual property now could discourage future innovation. The U.S. government spent some $10 billion in Operation Warp Speed to help that effort, among other things, but did not require companies to turn over their intellectual property to the government — or to share it.”

The companies involved have all made enormous profits on a relatively small short-term investment. The government put up much of the money and took much of the risk. That is not sufficient incentive?

Furthermore, we should assume that the people running pharmaceutical companies are not dumber than rocks. The law allows for the government to require the licensing of patents in emergencies (Section 1498 of the commercial code). Presumably, they know this. The loss of incentive story here is that if they hoped to get some pandemic super-bonanza in the future, they now know that they will just get extraordinarily large profits. Let’s cry for the drug companies.

I have argued that patent monopolies are actually a terrible way to finance drug research (see Rigged, chapter 5 [it’s free]). If we changed our mechanism for financing research, then we could ignore the issue of incentives here altogether. But that’s a longer discussion.

The reality is that much of the developing world is needlessly facing a humanitarian disaster because of vaccine nationalism and our protection of intellectual products. Furthermore, even the U.S. and other wealthy countries face an enormous risk that a new vaccine-resistant strain will develop (anyone want to go through another round of infections and lockdowns?), as long as the pandemic spreads unchecked anywhere in the world.

But to the Post, all of this is secondary to drug company profits.

  1. John Hermann
    May 11, 2021 at 6:00 am

    Clearly the Washington Post is a handmaiden of neoliberalism.

  2. Larry Kazdan
    May 11, 2021 at 6:13 am

    Covid: new vaccines needed globally within a year, say scientists
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/30/new-covid-vaccines-needed-within-year-say-scientists

    “The urgency we see in rich nations to vaccinate their populations, aiming for all adults by the summer, is simply not reflected globally. Instead, we have Covax aiming for perhaps 27% by the end of the year if we possibly can manage it – that is simply not good enough,” said Max Lawson, head of inequality policy at Oxfam and the chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, which is calling Covid-19 vaccine developers to openly share their technology and intellectual property to boost production.

    “Where is the ambitious global goal? A goal that the science tells us is needed?’ I think that’s the key point – we just don’t see the ambition that would go along with it, widespread recognition that limited vaccination is quite dangerous.”

  3. Ken Zimmerman
    May 11, 2021 at 8:00 am

    The economic theorists who explain and justify capitalism posit that people always pursue what is in their best interests. This is ridiculous for at least two reasons. First, figuring out what one’s interests are and how best to pursue them is something most humans never achieve and when they are so lucky to do so, find it impossible to hold onto the knowledge in the busy world of competing truth claims they regularly face. Second, this proposition is used in turn to justify the major pursuit of capitalism, profit. This buries humans even deeper in unsolvable problems. Defining profit has proven near impossible. Even in the short history of capitalism profit has been given four distinct definitions. And then there are the several pre-capitalism definitions. Including from religion, philosophy, and science. Even if these problems could be overcome, we still have no way of validating either that pursuing ‘best interests’ by an individual provides ‘best’ outcomes in every or most cases or that profit provides universal benefit over harm. Establishing these truth claims is frankly beyond human capabilities.

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