Everybody knows about Dr. Anthony Fauci. But what about Dr. Katalin Kariko? Or Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett? Or Dr. Jason McClellan?
The New York Times just documented the research behind the vaccines that are now turning the tide in the pandemic. The story has many twists and turns. But what stands out is how necessary publicly funded research was to the process.
Dr. Kariko of the University of Pennsylvania has long focused on researching messenger RNA, or mRNA, the genetic technology fueling the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. The lab she works in has received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as well as private funders.
Dr. Corbett, NIH’s lead scientist for coronavirus vaccine research, worked alongside the biotechnology company Moderna on its vaccine.
Dr. McClellan of the University of Texas at Austin—a public research university—helped isolate a part of the COVID-19 virus known as the “spike protein” along with the NIH, which has been funding research into spike proteins for years.
And those are just some of the rock stars who are—rightfully—getting the spotlight.
There are countless others who support scientific research at public institutions day in and day out. The lab techs, administrative assistants, janitors, and other public employees who will never get the credit they deserve.
Yes, private investment played a role. But that’s because of what economist Mariana Mazzucato and her colleagues call our “over-financialized biopharmaceutical innovation model.”
That means that the COVID-19 vaccines are fraught with the problems we see in the privatization of public schools, water, and other public goods.
There’s the inequality. As of February, not a single shot had been administered in some 130 nations with 2.5 billion people.
There’s the lack of transparency. AstraZeneca pledged not to profit from its vaccine “during the pandemic.” Yet, because they’re a private corporation, there’s no way to know for sure whether they’re prioritizing public health over profit.
There’s the cutting corners. The pharmaceutical companies designed their clinical trials to deliver the quickest possible positive result. This ignored important questions like whether the vaccines prevent transmission of the virus.
That’s why we can’t ignore the glaring lesson from the vaccine story: Public investment—and lots of it—is necessary for a healthy public.
As Mazzucato has pointed out, the technology in our smartphones—the internet, GPS, touchscreen—was publicly financed. Yet, Apple and Samsung get the credit—and the profits.
We can’t let that happen with these vaccines. Moderna’s vaccine was funded 100 percent through Operation Warp Speed, a federal government program. Pfizer-BioNTech’s relied on money from the German government.
We must be loud and clear about the necessary role of public institutions in public health. Whether we’re prepared for the next pandemic will depend on it.
Photo by Maryland GovPics.