Coronavirus: can the vaccine really be a “global public good”?


PUBLIC GOOD – Emmanuel Macron wants the future coronavirus vaccine to be “a global public good”. What does this notion cover? Is it really possible? Response elements.

During the annual meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO), exceptionally organized by videoconference, Monday, Emmanuel Macron presented his position on the future vaccine against the coronavirus. Once this is developed, the head of state wants it to become “a global public good, to which everyone should be able to have access“Its Chinese counterpart, Xi Jimping, is committed to it if its researchers are successful. The initiative is also supported by the European Union (EU) which hopes for a “universal, rapid and equitable access”.

This call comes in a context where the French laboratory Sanofi caused controversy by indicating a few days earlier that the United States would be priority for the vaccine, which will ultimately not be the case. Several companies and research groups are involved in the vaccine race. Among them, Moderna – American company led by French Stéphane Bancel – announced promising results and assured that his research was done in the interest of the “public good”. Wishful thinking? Will the vaccine, if it sees the light of day, really become a “global public good”?

What is a global public good?

To understand the concept of global public good, we must first look at that of public good. This is an economic term defined by the American Paul Samuelson in The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure (1954). These are both non-rival goods (the use of the goods by one person does not reduce consumption for other users) and non-excludable items (no one can be excluded from the consumption of this goods, it is therefore not possible to charge for its use).

These public goods constitute a “market failure”. No private actor will in principle want to produce or manage them since they are not profitable. This explains why it is the role of the State to take charge of these goods which are profitable to all.

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The notion of global public good, it did not develop in academic circles until the 1990s. Charles Kindleberger, one of the pioneering authors in the field, defines global public goods as “the set of goods accessible to all States which do not necessarily have an individual interest in producing them”. They raise an additional issue in relation to a national public good: inter-state coordination. Synchronization is often difficult to find due to the differences and particularities of each State. In other words, it is often difficult to find a consensus among a multitude of States for the management of these assets.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001, gave a few examples of global public goods, at the forefront of which include water, air, and climate and biodiversity. But also knowledge, international security or international economic, financial and monetary stabilization. The World Bank, for its part, believes that the rational circulation of information, natural resources and the creation and dissemination of knowledge are global public goods. Faced with the diversity of global public goods, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has classified them into three categories: natural global public goods, those resulting from man and finally overall political results (including peace, the health and stability of the international financial system).

Can the future vaccine be one?

It remains to be seen whether the future Covid-19 vaccine could fall into such a category. Initially, it will certainly only be available in limited quantities. A potential rarity which implies that it cannot be completely “non-rival” since some people would be likely to benefit from it and others not. As far as “non-excludability” is concerned, it seems certain: the vaccine may well be free. But then again, the uncertainty remains … In other words, economically speaking, it cannot be defined as a global public good, at least in the early stages of its production. It is all the more true that a global public good rests in essence on the cooperation of States, which is clearly not obvious at the moment, some discord – between the United States and China or the ‘WHO for example – for the moment sinking hopes of harmony.

In the 1950s, Jonas Salk refused to patent the polio vaccine he was the first to develop. He made his vaccine a global public good, forgoing several billion dollars to promote the wide dissemination of his discovery. This purely disinterested approach could represent an example to follow for the future vaccine against the coronavirus, but global changes, the explosion of research costs and the evolution of economic and social issues since that time do not make the task easy.

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The fact remains that considering the vaccine as a global public good could be entirely conceivable, if not adapted, by its health nature. On the other hand, it will indeed be necessary for a consensus to emerge between States, no legal constraint obliging to consider a product as a global public good. At the level of international law, no standard compels an actor to make a product a global public good. This will therefore require an agreement on the international scene.

An observation shared by Carine Milcent, researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), specialist in health economics and member of the Scientific Council of Public Health France (SPF) in Marianne : ” In the case of a potential vaccine against Covid-19, created by a completely private laboratory, a head of state can ask, as Emmanuel Macron did, to extract a drug from the laws of the market. However, it has no authority to impose it. “For her, it is rather a maneuver aimed at ultimately influencing the price of the vaccine:”This is a negotiation process, a signal sent to the laboratories to prevent them from getting carried away with the prices“In the end, global public good or not, that is not necessarily the issue. Rather, it is a matter of trying to obtain the best possible conditions for the future availability of the vaccine.

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