This topic is not a new one and is one I first wrote of several years ago. The concern is the number of for-profit companies who make drugs and medical supplies are not geared toward fighting pandemic or new bacterial strains that keep cropping up. They are geared toward profit. What do I mean by this?
Think of all of the television commercials about new prescription drugs. It will not be hard as there is a growing number with new names that make you ask, now what does this do? Quite simply, a drug company makes more money creating a maintenance drug you take every day for the rest of your life than they do making cures for major diseases.
It is not unusual for the company to codify a new illness which is neatly packaged with this new pill. Or, the new pill may be a supplement to an existing drug to make it better or address the side effects. Did you know there is an anti-constipation drug that is sold to help alleviate the constipation caused by opioid painkillers? Please note this is not intended to slight anyone who is gaining benefit from one of these drugs.
Making a drug that will cure something, simply has a low or negative ROI. One reason is the company would look poor if they charge to high a price for a cure. This is where the CDC and NIH must garner funding to pay for the development of drugs before the pandemic catches fire. The other risk is the new bacterial strains that may develop beyond our ability to fight the strain. This is where I first learned of the funding deficiency for massive exposure problems.
The same can be said of medical equipment. The New York Times has a good piece on the recent history of ventilator production. Agreements have been made then voided by acquisitive companies. These acquisitions were either to protect a higher priced ventilator or a market share. So, there were a number of false starts. What is frustrating is how easily contracts can be voided after an acquisition. This is horribly unfair to the buyer of the service or product, especially when the contract could help many.
There are a couple of larger points to be made. This is a great example of where there needs to be a blend of financial responsibility on investment for the greater good. This is not new. Our country has a history of a blend of corporate, venture capital, private and government investment. This is a key theme of Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Friedman’s book “That Used to be Us: How America fell behind in the world it created and how it can come back.”
Per another economic advisor, David Smick (“The World is Curved”) who advised Republican and Democrat presidents, this blend of capital investment need not occur on every investment or in some set order. Sometimes government funding leads and sometimes it may trail. The point is we have way to many either/ or arguments when the right answer is a blend of both or multiple. This is known as the “tyranny of the or.” Our history is built on the blend of capital investment, especially for large infrastructure projects.
So, greater good investments need to be evaluated as soon as possible. When the risk is identified, that is when the spend is needed, if not before given what the challenge is. Not having a COVID-19 vaccine early on is one thing that should have been addressed a few months ago given the development time. Not having enough ventilators is something that should have been addressed well before given their need. Leaving certain things to solely a for-profit lens will mean that some needed investments may not get made or not made soon enough.