Progress toward developing a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine within 12-18 months has been all over the news lately — highlighting the power and value of a free market in drug manufacturing.
Biotech company Moderna’s preferred COVID-19 vaccine candidate has shown promising results in initial human trials. Pharmaceutical company Pfizer’s four potential coronavirus vaccine candidates have proceeded to human trials and are awaiting results. The progress through initial research and production of vaccine candidates, tests on animals and subsequent human trials (the first two of three phases of required vaccine tests) has all occurred in a matter of months.
By comparison, the fastest vaccine ever developed took four years from initial research to federal approval, and most take many years longer than that. This progress has led public health experts to acknowledge that — while not certain — a COVID vaccine in 2020 is actually possible.
These examples offer only a glimpse of what the private sector is accomplishing in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Of all the groups researching and developing one of the more than 100 vaccine projects worldwide, more than 70% are from private industry. Private drug companies across the market have entered into unprecedented manufacturing partnerships to be able to manufacture millions of doses of vaccine in 2020, and billions thereafter. What’s more, the free market has made possible the philanthropic contribution of billions of dollars in funding — for vaccine manufacturing and solving vaccine supply chain issues — from groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Of course, the government also plays a critical role in COVID-19 vaccine research and development. Governments in the United States and elsewhere have partnered with pharmaceutical and biotech companies to fund vaccine research, require thorough vetting of vaccine candidates and ensure approved vaccines are safe and effective. Publicly funded academic institutions are also conducting research on vaccine candidates.
However, if and when a safe and effective vaccine is found, it will be private drug manufacturing companies that produce the billions of doses necessary to defeat the novel coronavirus pandemic. Government simply does not have the resources or expertise necessary to manufacture the COVID-19 vaccine fast enough.
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that when government interferes in the market and attempts to control the manufacture and sale of prescription drugs, it may be putting its citizens’ lives and health at risk.
An estimated 1.8 million Americans will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in 2020. Fortunately for these Americans, and millions more who were previously diagnosed, there have been breakthroughs in cancer treatment, such as immunotherapy drugs. Along with better lifestyle choices (e.g., less smoking) and improved cancer screening, these innovative drug therapies have helped reduce the U.S. cancer mortality rate by almost 30% since 1991.
In the United States, such drug therapies are regulated but not controlled like they are in a country like the United Kingdom. Therefore, immunotherapy drugs are more available. Perhaps not by coincidence, recent reports show that the age-adjusted rate of overall cancer mortality in the United Kingdom is 20% higher than in the U.S. For brain cancer and stomach cancer specifically, five-year survival rates are measurably higher in the U.S. (36.5% and 33.1%, respectively) than in the United Kingdom (26.3% and 20.7%). A freer market for prescription drugs means better access to improved drug treatments — and a longer, healthier life for the average person.
A free market in drug manufacturing is not simply a matter of philosophy or ideology. It is a matter of how much improvement in health and prosperity we want for ourselves and our loved ones. In serious cases like cancer and vaccines for pandemic disease, a free market in drug manufacturing can be the difference between life and death.
We live in a time where hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of lives depend on a vaccine that will only be possible with a drug manufacturing sector fueled by market incentives. Our views on federal and state regulation of pharmaceutical and biotech companies should be tempered by that sobering reality.
Derek Monson is vice president of policy at the Sutherland Institute.