When the vaccine comes, I'll be thanking big government

It turns out venture capitalists only tend to venture into a field once the basic, groundbreaking work has already been paid for by taxpayers. Picture: Shutterstock
It turns out venture capitalists only tend to venture into a field once the basic, groundbreaking work has already been paid for by taxpayers. Picture: Shutterstock

It's not done until it's done, of course. But "if" is turning to "when" among people who know about the progress towards a vaccine.

"I think there will be a vaccine that will initially be available sometime between November and December," Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week.

Such a vaccine wouldn't be available to the wider population perhaps until the middle of next year - but if he's right (and he's an eminent scientist who heads what he called a "science-based and data-driven agency"), there is light at the end of the tunnel.

AstraZeneca and Oxford University's trial continues to indicate that the candidate vaccine is at least effective on some people.

In Britain, also, "if" is turning to "when", with a potential timeline of a vaccine by the end of the year, limited vaccinations of health workers early in the new year and general vaccination by the middle of the year.

Again: it's not done until it's done. It's not over until the nurse sinks in the needle. I won't believe it 'til I feel it.

But! But!

When it's there - when - I will raise a glass to big government.

Over four decades of Reagan/Thatcher/Murdoch free-market reign, "government" has become a dirty word.

Big government should always become small government - and no government could be too small. It was only a burden on the back of taxpayers (apart from the military, of course, which is rarely described as a branch of government).

But have no illusions. Government money - our money - will have produced the vaccine.

The hard research has been done in laboratories funded by taxpayers, from Oxford University to the laboratories of the National Institutes of Health in the United States; from the University of Queensland to the Institute of Biology in China.

The division of labour between Oxford University's researchers and the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca was made clear when the partnership was announced.

The (publicly funded) university would do the basic research, and AstraZeneca would put to use its "global development, manufacturing and distribution capabilities", as AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot put it.

Big government would think up the idea, and big pharma would turn it into a product.

Big government would innovate, and big pharma would implement.

Way before COVID-19, that was the pattern.

In the United States, two-thirds of new drugs are variants of existing drugs. And of the truly innovative drugs, three-quarters come out of publicly funded National Institutes of Health laboratories.

"Private pharma has focused more on 'me too' drugs (slight variations of existing ones) and the development (including clinical trials) and marketing side of the business," says economist Mariana Mazzucato in her study, The Entrepreneurial State.

"It is, of course, highly ironic," she adds, "given this sector's constant bemoaning of 'stifling' regulation."

Her conclusion is that venture capitalists tend to venture into a field when the basic, groundbreaking work has already been done - and funded by taxpayers.

It turns out that "risk capital" doesn't like too much risk - that's borne by the public sector.

Steve Jobs is a hero. Of course he is. But Apple was built on publicly funded research, from the touch screen to Siri, the iPhone's annoying speaking robot.


"While the products owe their beautiful design and slick integration to the genius of Jobs and his large team, nearly every state-of-the art technology found in the iPod, iPhone and iPad is an often overlooked and ignored achievement of the research efforts and funding support of the government and military," Mazzucato says.

GPS? The military developed it. Biotechnology? The basic research was done in government labs. Nanotechnology? Publicly funded basic research.

The algorithm on which Google and its billions are built? It came from the publicly funded National Science Foundation in the United States (motto: "where discoveries begin").

Solar power? Photovoltaic cells for solar panels were first developed by the military for satellites. The internet? Public money again.

The countries leading the wind industry give tax breaks to - subsidise - manufacturers.

None of this is an argument for socialism, however you want to define it. The track records of the Soviet Union and pre-capitalist China on innovation (let alone human rights) are not great.

But it is an argument for recognising the contribution of government in a mixed capitalist economy.

Companies have an interest in turning government into a dirty word. By playing down taxpayers' contribution to their profits, they can argue that their own minimised taxes are a pure burden.

We have privatised the rewards of innovation and socialised the costs.

When that needle sinks into my arm, I will remember who paid for it - me and billions of others.

  • Steve Evans is a Canberra Times reporter.
This story When the vaccine comes, I'll be thanking big government first appeared on The Canberra Times.