Public Ownership of Privatized Medicine: Covid-19
Dana Brown, Director of the Next System Project frames the motives of privatized medicine in a system, which values profit over people. While nations are racing to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, how can the public gain ownership of big pharma? Is public ownership of privatized medicine possible? “We’re really in a situation now where we’ve got socialized risk and privatized benefit” says Brown.
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The crisis that we’re living today really lays bare the fruits of privatized medicine and a whole medicine system.
Big conglomerates that are saying, “Well, do invest in making a vaccine, or do we invest in making the next Viagra?” So vaccines are competing against other medications, and they keep losing out. Private sector finance and private pharma is really interested in drugs that you can use to treat chronic conditions. Something like a heart condition where you can take the drug over and over and over again for the rest of your life. But preventing disease isn’t actually their business model. Vaccine development is an expensive, long and risky process, and that’s precisely why it lends itself to the kind of patient capital that the public sector can put up, and why it’s not such a great bet for the private sector and venture capital, which is so set on really immediate short-term returns. Despite the fact that the public sector already makes an enormous investment here. The US National Institutes of Health has put up $700 million alone. We’re asking the private sector to take things over the finish line, and it’s just not happening. In terms of certain vaccines, antibiotics, drugs for neglected tropical diseases—things that aren’t money makers.
So if the public is putting all of this money up at the front end, why don’t we own it?
Well, that’s kind of the question that a lot of us are wrestling with. It was in 1980 with the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act that it became legal to patent and to have exclusivities on, and have, you know, full monopoly rights over inventions that were funded by public sources. So, before that, it would have been really hard to get to the point that we’re at now, where the NIH pays for a lot of the science behind the development of new medicines, but then private actors are able to charge whatever they want and say, “We own this.” So, really, we’re in a situation now where we’ve got socialized risk and privatized benefit.
People say, “But it requires the profit motive for innovation to happen.” Are you saying that’s not true?
Well, the famous quote always comes from Jonas Salk who developed the Polio vaccine, right? Who owns the vaccine? Well, the people. This is our patrimony as humanity. All of scientific development really depends on collective knowledge to begin with. We’re running to catch up with the problems of a broken system now rather than saying, “How do we assure on the front end, what is largely paid for by the public is then available to everyone in the public? For all coronavirus-related vaccines or treatments, we have to make sure that the intellectual property is open, that everybody has access, that the medication can be free.