European leaders are arguing for a “patent pool” that would effectively put a vaccine in common ownership. Last week, Oxfam fronted up a campaign for a People’s Vaccine with signatories that included the former prime minister Gordon Brown, the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and the leaders of Pakistan and South Africa, Imran Khan and Cyril Ramaphosa. It is calling for a vaccine to be made available free of charge.
According to the campaign, the “world cannot afford monopolies and competition to stand in the way of the universal need to save lives”.
If, and unfortunately it is still a big if, a vaccine is developed, and a production schedule and price are unveiled, the clamour will only increase. Whichever company gets there first could find itself nationalised in the blink of an eye.
This is dangerous nonsense. We are hardly going to accelerate either vaccine or drug development by making it impossible for anyone to make money from it.
True, there might be a problem with the availability of medicines when we get them. But the solution is surely to make enough funding and aid available, and to invest in ramping up vaccine plants, as the UK is already doing.
In fact, vaccines are not usually prohibitively expensive by the standards of medical care. The priciest commonly used vaccine is Gardasil, which protects against HPV, and can cost over £400 for three jabs. Most, such as the MMR jab, are in the £20 to £30 range. If you took a mid-price of say £100 a shot, you could inoculate the whole of the UK for around £6.5bn (at which point Rishi Sunak will come running out of the Treasury shouting “where do I sign the cheque?”).
If South Africa struggled with the cost (£5.7bn) or Pakistan (£21bn), global aid budgets could easily be mobilised to cover that. We all have an interest in living in a world free of Covid-19. If it cost £100bn, it is hard to believe anyone would quibble about the cost. It would be cheap at the price.