Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Swine Flu vaccine dilemma

Novartis claimed last week that had made the first batch of the vaccine for the H1N1 virus that is the cause for swine flu. What caught my attention was Novartis refusing the call of the World Health Organisation to give the vaccine free to poor countries. Novartis says whoever buys, must at least cover costs. Click here for FT’s reporting of the story.

The issue raises a dilemma for which there are no easy answers. For both sides are right.

From the WHO’s point of view, this is about saving lives. They’ve just declared a global pandemic. Many millions could die. Here’s a way of preventing the disease. In poor countries, people just can’t pay for the vaccines. So if you price the vaccines, they simply won’t use it. So is it ethically OK to let many die when you could possibly prevent it ?

From Novartis’ point of view, they are a commercial organization, not a charity. There is a cost to producing the vaccine. What they are saying to the poor countries is, at least cover costs. If they simply produced every life saying drug and distributed free to people just because they were too poor to pay for the cost, they would soon be out of business themselves. Why would they even want to take up research on swine flu vaccine if they kneow they would lose their shirts because of it.

One answer could be that governments buy the vaccines and distribute free to the poor. But then governments don’t have the money either. What’s so special about swine flu. The common flu kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. Shouldn’t we be distributing common flu vaccines to everybody free. And why not Tuberculosis vaccines, or vaccines against other killer diseases ? There is definitely not enough money amongst governments to distribute every vaccine free.

This is not an easy dilemma. So what is to be done.

I have a humble suggestion. The concept of open source, in the IT world, lends a powerful model. People around the world voluntarily come together and donate their expertise for free. And such projects coexist with the business world where companies charge for a similar product or service. Consumers are free to chose.

In the case of the vaccine, the cost is all in the intellectual property of creating the vaccine. The actual manufacture costs a pittance. So why not create an open source platform for the researchers of the world to collaborate voluntarily. That way Novartis can create and produce drugs and vaccines in the normal business way. The open source guys will create for free.

Both have a place in the world. The on line world has shown us that.