Former New York Times reporter Donald McNeil had an interesting psychic room on how antitrust law could hamper the development of effective treatments for COVID-19. McNeil argued that COVID-19 treatments that were developed by Pfizer and Merck, and are now in the final stages of testing, may work best when taken together.
He argues that this may be the case because the drugs use two fundamentally different mechanisms to attack the virus. Using the two in combination, we would maximize the likelihood that at least one would be effective. This is the approach followed for effective HIV drugs, as well as for hepatitis C treatment.
McNeil argues that the reason the suits are not sought after is because of antitrust laws. If, instead of competing with their various drugs, two giant drugmakers like Pfizer and Merck were to collaborate to produce the best possible treatment for COVID-19, they would risk antitrust action from the government or competing drug companies. . McNeil recommends deviating from antitrust rules when life-saving drugs are involved.
While it is clearly desirable in this case, it is worth stepping back for a minute. Imagine we did not rely on government patent monopolies to fund biomedical research. Suppose that instead of granting monopolies, the government just prepaid research. (That’s pretty much what we did with Moderna’s vaccine, but we also gave them a patent monopoly.)
If the government paid for the research, a condition for obtaining the funding would be that all results be fully open. Against this backdrop, Pfizer, Merck and anyone else researching the treatment of COVID-19 would have every reason in the world to examine the effectiveness of using combination drugs.
The incentive would be to show results that improve people’s health, not to advance the prospects of a specific drug. (I recommend that the funding take the form of long-term contracts, which could be renewed and extended, depending on the results posted in previous funding rounds.) This system would also have the advantage that no one would have an incentive to hide the results. results. that reflected poorly on particular drugs (for example, the addictive power of the new generation of opioids).
In this context, antitrust would not be a problem. All drugs would be produced as generics as soon as they enter the market. While there might be some cause for concern if manufacturing became too concentrated, there would be no issues associated with companies collaborating on the development of new drugs.
Ideally, we would also see this kind of collaboration internationally. This is what many of us hoped for at start of pandemic. Imagine if we were prepared to work with China to get their vaccines distributed as widely as possible, while we wait for production of the most effective mRNA vaccines to increase. (And, everyone in the world would be able to produce the mRNA vaccines if they could develop or convert the manufacturing capacity.) We might have saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives and significantly slowed down the process. spread.
The pandemic has provided an opportunity to experiment with new ways to support the development of vaccines, tests and treatments. Sadly, instead, we dug deeper into our previous methods, which took a heavy toll on human lives, as well as the health of people around the world. It may be late in the game in terms of tackling this pandemic, but further thinking would be immensely valuable in preparing for the next pandemic, as well as our ongoing struggles with cancer, heart disease and disease. other long-standing health problems.
 I describe how this type of funding mechanism might work in Chapter 5 of Rigged [it’s free].
This first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the press Blog.