As American taxpayers, we are justified in asking why the United States government is giving a billion dollars to a British-Swedish pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca, to develop a very early stage Covid-19 vaccine.
Mind you, I am not particularly upset that AstraZeneca is British company, nor that the vaccine candidate was developed by an English research team. I have questioned government funding of Moderna, an American company, as well.
My concerns are several. First, AstraZeneca is an incredibly profitable pharmaceutical company. Last year, their sales grew at a rate of 12 percent to a total of $23.5 billion. Profit margins on their proprietary pharmaceutical products are typically in the range of 80 percent. And their budget for advertising and promoting those products? Also in the billions.
Given this, does AstraZeneca really need an additional business incentive of a billion dollars to fight a disease that has devastated economies the world over, and more particularly their own market for drugs? It is well documented that stay-at-home practices have significantly reduced doctor’s visits and pharmaceutical sales. Creating a vaccine would seem to be in the company’s best interest, as well as a public service for which they might be well paid.
My second concern is that our government is placing a bet on very specific vaccine candidates. Why those vaccine candidates when more than 100 are in the running? Another company using technology nearly identical to that behind the AstraZeneca candidate already published the results of its first human trials—and they were decidedly mixed. Such was the case with the Oxford vaccine candidate recently tested in nonhuman primates, too. The data suggested that this class of vaccines may only protect us partially, reducing virus growth in the lungs, but not primary infection in the nose.
The United States government made a similarly speculative and risky bet when it gave nearly half a billion dollars to a well-funded American biotech company, Moderna, to test an unproven technology with no previously approved or marketed products.
My third concern is transparency. Who made the decision to use taxpayer dollars in this way? On what basis was the decision made? What alternatives were considered? What was the justification for the amount allocated? Will the companies be held to strict reporting and accounting standards? Was the allocation of public funds open and transparent? I can’t answer any of these questions based on information available to the general public. Is it right? Is it even legal?
I am in favor of government support of broad vaccine research and development. We also know that creating vaccines to protect against Covid is not likely to be easy. But why should the United States government pay companies with robust finances many hundreds of millions of dollars to do what is already in their best interest? Why place such early bets on such early stage products when the warning on the limitations of their approach are already flashing?
It is rumored that Napoleon Bonaparte once said to his valet, “Dress me slowly, I am in a hurry.” Yes, we must proceed with a sense of urgency. But let’s be careful and strategic in how we use our valuable resources.