Coronavirus, capitalism, and the cure business

Tentacles: The global Big Pharma market is worth £1 trillion. © Herald and News

Are the giant drug companies the solution not the problem? Multinational pharmaceutical companies want to make money from the pandemic, but their research may be essential to finding a vaccine.

The race is on to find a cure for coronavirus, with over forty different vaccines being tested all over the world. But medical experts warn it will be at least another 18 months until a working vaccine is ready.

This might sound like a long time, but it is pretty quick for a new drug. Pharmaceuticals must be tested in the laboratory and carefully trialled on volunteers before they are approved as safe and effective for the general population. The first human trials for a coronavirus vaccine just started last week in the USA.

The UK government has donated £210 million to finding a cure, and President Trump has promised a monopoly to a drug company working on a vaccine. As economies grind to a halt, the drug companies appear to be the only ones making any money. But are they exploiting a crisis and are we getting our money’s worth?

Bernie Sanders is not a fan of Big Pharma. At a recent rally, he called the drug companies “a bunch of crooks” who make us pay twice for our medicine. First, the government pays them for the research and then again to buy and use the vaccine. Sanders believes everyone has a right to the vaccine and he will make it free for all, if he becomes president.

But can we put a price tag on a cure for Covid-19? Our current methods of containment and lockdown are incredibly expensive and are already having serious economic and social consequences. And they only delay the spread of the disease. A vaccine to save lives and return life to normal is surely worth paying the big drug companies.

In fact, some critics argue that the problem is that companies can’t make enough money from vaccines. Big Pharma makes most of its profits treating common illnesses, like cancer and heart disease, in rich, developed countries.

Epidemics like the coronavirus often appear and disappear before slow and expensive trials can be completed. So, research into previous outbreaks was stopped before a vaccine could be developed, even though the research could have helped us develop a vaccine for the new coronavirus more quickly.

So, are the giant drug companies the solution not the problem?

Making a killing?

Some say it is good that companies make so much money from researching new medicines. They would not do it otherwise, and their medical research has given us the modern miracle of cheap drugs for every kind of ailment. With drug companies working overtime to find a vaccine that will save lives, how can we call them a problem and not the solution?

Others say we should be very worried about the vast amounts of money in the pharmaceutical industry. The coronavirus pandemic is a matter of global public health, and we cannot allow multinational companies to control the process or the price of a vaccine. Big Pharma has too much influence over politicians and this risks our money and our health.

You Decide

  1. Would you volunteer to test a coronavirus vaccine?
  2. Should drug companies make money from the coronavirus epidemic?


  1. Spend half an hour researching the invention of vaccination and the first vaccine for smallpox. On a piece of paper, draw and explain how the smallpox vaccine works. Then explain the process of vaccination to a member or your household.
  2. Research the world’s deadliest diseases and decide which we should eradicate first and why. Prepare your argument on paper, and convince someone at home that you are right.

Some People Say...

“The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling in which your heart will be exercised equally with your head.”

William Osler (1849-1919), Canadian doctor and founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The pharmaceutical giants dominate the world of medical research. Like any other business, they exist to make a profit. If they cannot make money from a drug, they are not going to invest in it. Governments, on the other hand, are concerned about the overall health of the public. If a drug is too expensive or not profitable for a company to develop, governments offer companies financial support and benefits.
What do we not know?
At the heart of this debate is the relationship between government and capitalism. On the liberal side of the argument, governments are good and big business is bad. Unless controlled and regulated, companies will take advantage of a crisis and get rich at the expense of public health. Governments and public-owned companies will do a better job. Supporters of capitalism and a free market disagree. They believe that companies competing with each other leads to quicker and cheaper results.

Word Watch

A medicine that gives the patient immunity from a virus, helping the body fight any future infection.
Drugs used for the prevention and treatment of disease and illness.
The exclusive right to sell something.
Bernie Sanders
US senator for Vermont and Democratic presidential candidate.
Big Pharma
The common term for the international drugs or pharmaceutical industry.
Previous outbreaks
The new coronavirus is similar to the Sars and Mers viruses that appeared in 2002 and 2012.
Illness, typically a minor one.

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