16 May 2020

An Elegant Solution

Dean Baker, an economist who not only predicted the housing meltdown, but put his money where his mouth was, and sold his home and moved into rental housing in the early 2000s, has a solution to the "problem" of the Chinese "stealing" US vaccine research.

He suggest that all research be released as free and public information, which would mean that there is nothing to "steal".

What's more if all this information were publicly exchanged, we would have a vaccine that much sooner (assuming that a vaccine is possible, but that is another blog post).

The only people who would lose, would be the big pharma guys who want to charge thousands of dollars a dose.

To them, I say, "Go Cheney yourself."
In the last couple of weeks both the New York Times and National Public Radio have warned that China could steal a vaccine against the coronavirus, or at least steal work in the U.S. done towards developing a vaccine. Both outlets obviously thought their audiences should view this as a serious concern.

As I wrote previously, it is not clear why those of us who don’t either own large amounts of stock in drug companies, or give a damn about Donald Trump’s ego, should be upset about the prospect of China “stealing” a vaccine. Concretely, if China gained knowledge from labs in the United States that allowed it to develop and produce a vaccine more quickly, this would mean that hundreds of millions of people might be protected against a deadly disease more quickly than would otherwise be the case. If China made this vaccine available to people in the developing world, then the numbers could be in the billions.

Sounds pretty scary, right?

It is amazing that neither the reporters writing these stories nor their editors apparently gave much thought to the implications of China “stealing” a vaccine. Or perhaps, even worse, maybe they did. Anyhow, I suspect that most of the audiences of these outlets would not consider it a terrible thing if people in China or other countries could get vaccinated more quickly against the coronavirus.

But the issue of this potential theft is just the beginning of the story. If China can in principle develop a vaccine more quickly if it has access to data from labs in the United States then it must also be the case that researchers in the United States could develop a vaccine more quickly if they had data from labs in China and elsewhere. This raises the question of why we are not researching a vaccine collectively, with researchers all over the world posting their findings as quickly as practical so that teams of researchers everywhere can benefit from them?

There is a bad answer and somewhat less bad answer to this question. The bad answer is that the goal of the researchers is to get a government-granted patent monopoly so that they can charge lots of money for a vaccine and get very rich. The less bad answer is that we rely on grants of patent monopolies to finance research. If companies didn’t have the hope of getting a patent monopoly, they would have no way to recoup the costs they are incurring paying researchers and undertaking the trials necessary to establish the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine.


However, in a context where the whole world is struggling to deal with a pandemic that is killing hundreds of thousands of people, it might be reasonable to just do the research and worry about the cost-sharing later. It would make sense for governments to fund their own research to the extent practical and require that everything be fully public as soon as possible.

If we went this route, our leading news outlets could put aside their fears that China would steal the vaccine. If they take advantage of U.S. research and rush ahead and develop an effective vaccine before our own researchers, then the whole world will benefit from having a vaccine sooner than would otherwise be the case.


We have a huge amount of potential gain from going the route of open research and very little to lose. And our leading news outlets would be able to stop worrying about China stealing our vaccine.
Now, is the absolutely worst time to allow big pharma to loot the rest of us though thoroughly undeserved patent rights.


Post a Comment