“Could the state organize research, production and distribution of vaccines? “

Companies. The windfall profits that pharmaceutical companies derive from the most innovative anti-Covid-19 vaccines are openly contested. Either in the name of public research which would have contributed to these innovations, or because vaccination would be a universal public good. But could we have proceeded otherwise? Could the State organize the research, production and distribution of vaccines as it does for its strategic armaments?

An investigation by New York Times reveals that the United States has tried for a long time to implement such a national policy. Analysis of this experience and its difficulties could shed light on the reflection to be undertaken in order to better prepare for future epidemics (“Beneath a Covid Vaccine Debacle, 30 Years of Government Culpability”, The New York Times, December 23, 2021).

It was with the first Iraq war (1990) that the US Department of Defense (DoD) discovered that it was unable to protect its troops against anthrax, a serious infectious disease. Of course, he owns the vaccines, but his calls to the big pharmaceutical companies to produce them in mass remain in vain. The project of a national production unit managed by an expert company then saw the light of day, but came up against the huge public investment required and the same lack of interest from the major players in the sector.

In an emergency, the DoD then turned to a new investor who, benefiting from massive federal aid, bought a vaccine center in Michigan and developed a factory for the anthrax vaccine. But this company, the current Emergent BioSolutions, will only achieve the necessary quality with a delay. In 2006, the United States created an agency to support biomedical research and create partnerships with Big Pharma. But the latter remain reluctant, and the contracts will go mainly to the firm Emergent BioSolutions.

New medical debacle

With the outbreak of the H1N1 flu (2009), large laboratories like Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline are responding this time to the call, but only temporarily. The project of a national non-profit production center was relaunched with the Merck laboratory, but without success.

When the epidemic due to the coronavirus explodes, the United States therefore only has the Emergent BioSolutions company to manufacture the conventional, and inexpensive, vaccines of Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca-Oxford. But its production does not get the approval of the health authorities, forcing the Biden administration to cancel these contracts, giving the impression of a – new – medical debacle.

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