Ronald Reagan once said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.” In the U.S.’s fraught political climate, sadly it was predictable that even the welcome news of Pfizer’s promising COVID-19 trial results would produce a political dogfight about the timing of the announcement and who should be thanked for the prospect of the pandemic ending sooner.
Vice President Mike Pence, for example, tweeted this morning: “HUGE NEWS: Thanks to the public‐private partnership forged by President @realDonaldTrump, @pfizer announced its Coronavirus Vaccine trial is EFFECTIVE, preventing infection in 90% of its volunteers.” Certainly, the federal government helped grease the wheels of COVID-19 vaccine development with commitments to buy doses from certain companies (something which economists pushed hard for.) In Pfizer’s case, that was an agreement to pay $1.9 billion for 100 million doses (enough for 50 million people) with an option to purchase 500 million more—provided the vaccine prove at least 50 percent more effective than a placebo. Yet, is it really the “public‐private partnership” here that delivered this particular success?
Interestingly, Pfizer was not in the part of the government’s Operation Warp Speed program that funded vaccine research and development, unlike six other companies. Asked in September why they had opted to shun this money and bear the R&D risks themselves, and what advantages that might grant them, Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla explained:
You’re right, if it fails, it goes to our pocket. And at the end of the day, it’s only money. That will not break the company, although it is going to be painful because we are investing one billion and a half at least in COVID right now. But the reason why I did it was because I wanted to liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy. When you get money from someone that always comes with strings. They want to see how we are going to progress, what type of moves you are going to do. They want reports. I didn’t want to have any of that. I wanted them— basically I gave them an open checkbook so that they can worry only about scientific challenges, not anything else. And also, I wanted to keep Pfizer out of politics, by the way.
There’s a libertarian regulatory lesson here: as we saw with the Food and Drug Administration and COVID-19 diagnostic testing, bureaucracy can hold up important innovation, bringing enormous costs during a pandemic that right now is severely constraining commercial activity and our liberties. And with government funds come the threat of both political pressure and control that put further sand in the gears.