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Commentary: The global vaccine crisis is a test of capitalism

Commentary: The global vaccine crisis is a test of capitalism

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The 2008 crash tested financial globalization. In 2020, the chaos of the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic led many to question the world’s dependence on complex global supply chains.

These last few months, however, as vaccination programs have taken off in some parts of the world and stalled in others, have raised even deeper doubts about globalization and the capitalist system. Unless governments act soon, capitalism itself could face a crisis of credibility.

The greatest argument in favor of regulated markets is that they manage production better than any other system. Done properly, regulated market capitalism is supposed to match supply and demand, and provide the right incentives. Productive capacity is built, not wasted. Buyers and sellers are connected. Innovation thrives and benefits everyone.

But, right now, that’s not the case. This isn’t about inequality, which we always knew capitalism could create. It’s about inefficiency, which capitalism is supposed to avoid.

When it comes to desperately needed COVID-19 vaccines, capacity is being wasted and innovation isn’t benefiting everyone. Twelve billion vaccine doses could be produced this year, if all current projections are aggregated. But we’re nowhere close to that in actuality. And the doses that are available have largely been gobbled up by rich countries.

Can more be produced? In many developing nations, pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity is being under-utilized.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that multiple countries have demanded intellectual property rights essentially be suspended for the duration of the pandemic for COVID-related drugs and vaccines. That sounds like a tempting — even satisfying — solution. But, as my colleague David Fickling has pointed out, if getting new vaccines out the door was as simple as ignoring IPR rules, then we would see developing countries doing just that by issuing what are called “compulsory licenses.” They haven’t.

True, some countries may fear retaliation if they issue such licenses; a broad IPR waiver would get around that problem. But the larger issue is that something as complex as a COVID-19 vaccine cannot be easily reverse-engineered. Simply telling companies they’re free to try won’t do much good.

In other words, we need Big Pharma to cooperate and license its technology to as many manufacturers at possible. Somewhat to my surprise, the vaccine industry seems already to be working unusually hard at this.

But the disincentives for Big Pharma to expand production even further are considerable. More likely, the binding constraint is that they’re already really stretched internally; every new licensee that they sign up would add another location they’d need to carefully scrutinize to ensure that it meets good manufacturing practices.

Even so, these can’t be seen as insurmountable obstacles, not when the situation is so dire. Several prominent figures associated with global public health and the World Health Organization issued an appeal last month in the British Medical Journal for companies to “voluntarily step up with licensing and share their knowledge with multiple producers — moving from a limited set of contract manufacturers to a coordinated effort with multiple producers.”

If that is to happen, governments will have to help. Rich-country governments should, in particular, consider how to pay for the renovation and expansion of facilities in the developing world to prepare them to make vaccines under license.

If both sides don’t meet this challenge, then across the world people are going to wonder if a system that leads to wasted capacity and market failure even during a global pandemic is all it’s cracked up to be. Global trading rules, basic respect for intellectual property and much else hangs in the balance. Unless we can scale up our response soon, capitalism’s reputation could take a bigger hit in 2021 than 2008, or 1929.

Mihir Swarup Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and head of its Economy and Growth Programme. He is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy,” and co-editor of “What the Economy Needs Now.”


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