On November 22, the New York Times published a fascinating account of the race to produce a coronavirus vaccine. The Times report included a number of interesting facts, but one really grabbed my attention: It turns out that the Moderna vaccine, which was just shown to be 95 percent effective, was actually developed by the company in just two days in January 2020.
That’s right, they developed the vaccine in two days in January, but then needed to spend the following ten months performing tests in order to meet the FDA’s standards for vaccine safety and efficacy.
During those ten months, 1.3 million people, including a quarter million Americans, have died from the coronavirus.
The FDA’s obstacle course is only partly defensible. To be sure, it makes sense to take time to show that a new drug is safe. But that process can actually be done very quickly. You can prove that a drug is safe just by administering it to a thousand people. If no one gets sick, it’s safe. Proving that a drug is effective, on the other hand, takes more time because you need to wait long enough for a test group of people to be expected to have a significant number of cases. Over the past 300 days, a total of 3 percent of the U.S. population has contracted coronavirus. So, it takes 100 days to create a 1 percent probability that members of a test group will catch the virus. Under such conditions it is impossible to prove statistically that a vaccine is effective until after the disease has spread to epidemic proportions.
This situation was made even worse when Moncef Slaoui, head of the Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed,” contacted Moderna on August 25 and told them they had to pause the final stage of their testing program until they recruited more minority subjects. This delightful piece of political correctness cost Moderna a month, during which time approximately 40,000 Americans died from coronavirus.
Now it is November, and both Moderna and Pfizer have finally reported powerful test results, showing that their vaccines are 95 percent effective. Assuming that the FDA acts promptly to allow use, Pfizer says it can produce 50 million doses of its vaccine by the end of the year, and 1.3 billion next year. The smaller Moderna company can produce at about one-fifth that rate.
The government may be proud of these numbers, as indeed they represent rates of development and production that far exceed normal expectations. But we should not be satisfied by them, as they will still result in hundreds of thousands of additional unnecessary American deaths, and millions more worldwide.
The main problem is the business-as-usual expectation that only the company that develops a vaccine should be allowed to produce it. But this is not a business-as-usual situation. To crush the pandemic quickly worldwide, seven billion vaccine doses will be needed within months, not years. Big Pharma is not big enough for that job. If the pandemic is to be countered on the scale required, the vaccines need to be made public domain.
Now, as an inventor and head of a research and development company myself, I am a strong believer in patents and other forms of protection for intellectual property. If inventors are not rewarded, innovation is disincentivized and inventions simply won’t happen. Moreover, it is clear that Moderna and Pfizer have done an outstanding job, for which they deserve a very hefty profit and public honors for everyone who contributed to their spectacular triumphs to boot. But this is a public-health emergency, and rewarding the companies by means of the profits accruing to a monopoly production position is not appropriate.
How then should the companies be rewarded, if not with exclusive rights? That answer is simple: with cash. Each of the two named companies spent about $2 billion to conduct their development work. Pfizer did its work on its own dime. Less well-heeled Moderna did its work at cost for Uncle Sam. So reward Pfizer with a well-deserved “thank you” check for $6 billion, and Moderna with one for an additional $4 billion. This will amount to a cool quick 200 percent profit for each, and can be gifted with gold medals for every manager, scientist, and lab assistant who played a role. Such sums are a pittance compared to what is being spent to support tens of millions of people forced out of work by ineffective and unsustainable lockdowns. But make the vaccines public domain straight away, so that the facilities of not two, but thousands, of companies worldwide can be mobilized.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed in record speed using revolutionary methods. Their triumph is not just a victory for those companies, but for American scientific ingenuity and the nation that supports it. Should we not then at least seek to profit as a nation by licensing production here, and exporting the drug for sale? No, we should not. America will not be safe until the pandemic is crushed globally. Every producer worldwide that can be enlisted in that cause is our ally, not our competitor.
So, let us be generous, and do well by doing good. No American will be able to look at our action and not feel prouder to be an American. No one else will be able to look upon it and not be astonished by what free people can do.