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Coronavirus has upended the profit incentives for pharmaceutical research

An ampule of Ebola drug Remdesivir
It costs serious money to test coronavirus treatments like remdesivir. Who’s footing the bill?
  • Olivia Goldhill
By Olivia Goldhill

Science reporter

Fighting a pandemic will take more than scientific expertise and a collective sense of panic. It will take billions and billions of dollars.

Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), said in April that researchers are “on track” to find, create, and produce a coronavirus vaccine in 12 to 18 months. That timeline is significantly shorter than standard practice—by more than a decade—and is only possible if governments throw money at the problem.

Vaccine manufacturing and production costs about $500 million on average, says Stanley Plotkin, a physician whose research contributed to the development of vaccines for rubella, rabies, and polio. Even under normal circumstances, market incentives are rarely strong enough to encourage taking on those costs, and rushing the process only drives up the bill. Because it takes months to manufacture a vaccine, production must begin long before researchers know if their Covid-19 vaccine will work. Few rational companies would take on this cost. So public funding must come to the rescue: As of June, the US government has invested more than $2 billion in various companies’ vaccine trials.

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