By Roger Bate, American Enterprise Institute (AEI)
The World Health Assembly which begins today is the most important in living memory. Normally it lasts for a mind-numbingly boring week and addresses myriad issues, but this time it’s only taking two days, with the focus on Covid-19.
NPR is setting this up as US v China as the two big bullies in the room. And even The Economist is avidly quoting Oxfam to establish the US as the main enemy of progress against the virus. Oxfam is pushing for a “People’s Vaccine,” as the prime concern is apparently that material interests are not cooperating, and that the U.S. will privatize any response. NPR concurs, claiming that “other plans for a COVID vaccine have not necessarily embrace planetary solidarity and appear to have been driven by national and commercial interests. For example, the U.S. last week announced Operation Warp Speed to develop a coronavirus vaccine for ‘American patients’ and ‘the American people.’”
What is remarkable about all this is that there is no vaccine – and there may never be one. The main public focus of the WHA appears to be about making sure that a product that doesn’t exist is controlled and distributed by a bureaucratic health elite that will not develop it.
Government support of basic research is wonderful, as it can lead to new lines of enquiry and unusual breakthroughs. But it is private finance and the enterprises it supports that develop most of the world’s vaccines and medicines, and this isn’t going to change because there is now a deadly threat to which everyone wants a solution.
Maybe a pledge to ensure that a vaccine gets to everyone is the best that health cheerleaders can come up with at WHA. But it is remarkable that at a time when the world is destroying much private business by lockdown, they want to pre-litigate any possible profit from a vaccine or cure by the private sector.
Love him or – far more likely in the media – hate him, President Trump has shown with the deployment of the Defense Procurement Act that he is quite happy to use the full power of the law to demand business act as his administration sees fit. Foreign nations would do likewise, compulsory licensing any new technology they required. Thus the notion that a private entity could come up with a vaccine and think it could hold anyone to ransom is absurd. Even more so, when all the action so far has been biopharma companies giving stuff away: Gilead, for example, has given all of its doses of Remdesivir to research or treatment – the only drug which has so far shown any efficacy.
Far more worrisome than this pointless preemptive exercise in intellectual property control is the geopolitical fight it effectively ignores. Equating mistakes and misstatements by US leaders with the lies, disappearances and coverups of their Chinese counterparts is odious, and frankly just shows how deranged the mainstream media has become when it comes to Trump.
Roger Bate is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) where he researches international health policy.