Bill Gates announced on April 2 that his foundation would fund the construction of facilities to produce seven possible coronavirus vaccines. The Microsoft founder acknowledges that only two of those vaccines will likely succeed – and the foundation will thus waste billions of dollars on the failed candidates. That’s a small price to pay to ensure the prompt delivery of vaccines, save countless lives and restart the economy, he says.
And yet, “Billionaires should not exist,” according to Sen. Bernie Sanders. “Every billionaire is a policy failure,” says Dan Riffle, one of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s top advisers.
But without wealthy individuals and the thriving market economy that produces them, medical progress would grind to a halt.
Private philanthropic efforts have delivered public health victories that governments have proved unwilling or unable to secure. The Gates Foundation spends more on public health each year than the World Health Organization. As a charter member of the vaccine alliance Gavi, the foundation has helped vaccinate over 700 million children and prevent more than 13 million deaths.
Its philanthropic investment in potential vaccines against COVID-19 – and the $100 million it has already pledged to improve testing and otherwise combat the outbreak – could save millions more lives.
Gates isn’t alone in deploying his wealth to fight for medical progress. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged $40 million to help fund global COVID-19 responses. His long track record of health care philanthropy includes a $300 million donation to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which has produced reams of research to inform the public response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter and Square, recently pledged $1 billion of his fortune to COVID-19 relief.
Of course, these generous donations pale in comparison to what private companies spend on medical research. In 2018, U.S. biopharmaceutical companies invested $102 billion in research and development – more than twice the annual budget of the National Institutes of Health.
Many Democrats want to snuff out that research by imposing price controls on pharmaceuticals. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Lower Drug Costs Now Act, for example, would allow the government to cap prices for up to 250 branded drugs at the average price paid in six other developed countries. These caps could cut pharmaceutical R&D spending by $200 billion over the next decade – and prevent the development of 100 new drugs.
Some supporters of the Pelosi bill acknowledge as much – and counter that the government could make up for declines in private investment in medical research and development.
But the government’s response to the pandemic should not instill any confidence in its ability to become the nation’s chief drug researcher.
Officials at all levels of government were ignorant of how the coronavirus operated and was transmitted even weeks after that information was public across social and conventional media.
Bureaucratic incompetence caused the government to bungle early efforts to test for the virus. And the government still doesn’t have a workable plan to test and trace those who are infected.
Compare that to what the private sector has done since the scope of the outbreak became apparent. Gilead Sciences has ramped up production of remdesivir, a potential treatment for the novel coronavirus that has not yet received FDA approval. The antiviral has shown promise against the coronaviruses that cause SARS and MERS and is currently in clinical trials testing its effectiveness against the novel coronavirus. Inovio Pharmaceuticals and Moderna Inc., two small biotech firms, began human trials on possible vaccines in a matter of months.
The federal government is incapable of moving that fast – especially in the midst of a public health crisis.
Billionaires, and the market capitalism that creates them, may make for convenient targets. But when we beat this pandemic, they’ll be the primary reason.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All, Encounter Books, January 2020. Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.