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Capitalism won’t save us from Covid, no matter what Boris Johnson might think

His claim that ‘greed’ was the driver behind the UK’s vaccine success ignores the huge role of state funding. Da The Guardian.

Boris Johnson has attributed the UK’s vaccine success to “capitalism” and “greed”. Though these were crude remarks, if the prime minister’s words are any indication of his vision for how the UK can recover from the pandemic, there are worrying implications for the country’s policies at home and abroad.

This is not the first time that Johnson has taken the wrong economic lessonsfrom the Covid crisis. A few months ago he said in the same spirit that for “those on the left, who think everything can be funded by uncle sugar the taxpayer … there comes a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it”. Nor is Johnson the first person to have viewed the vaccines as a private sector coup. It’s worth remembering that the “AstraZeneca” vaccine was created by scientists at the University of Oxford and developed and distributed by the pharmaceutical giant. Yet the private sector has emerged as the victor in the public celebration of Covid vaccines.

In truth, an unprecedented amount of public funding has been poured into vaccine research, development and manufacturing. The leading six vaccine candidates have received an estimated $12bn (£8.7bn) of taxpayer and public money, including $1.7bn for the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab and $2.5bn for the Pfizer/BioNTech candidate. This level of investment represents a huge risk – but it’s not the only risk that the public sector has taken on. Governments have used “advanced market commitments” to guarantee that private companies that successfully produce a Covid-19 vaccine are amply rewarded with huge orders.

Public funds spent on research and development are often more entrepreneurial – in the sense that governments are investing in the early, riskiest stages of health innovation, before any market is viable. This is part of the reason why companies were able to develop a Covid vaccine in record time. As a new report from the UK’s Industrial Strategy Council makes clear, the fast turnaround of Covid-19 vaccines would have been unthinkable without state involvement. Effective, “mission-oriented” government coordination – from industrial policy to investment in life sciences, strategic public procurement and public-private partnerships – has been key to the success story of Covid-19 vaccines.

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