In a milestone revelation this month, it was announced that the United States has administered more than 150 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and that all Americans will be eligible to receive it before the end of the summer. What an amazing mark of progress we have achieved, given that merely a year ago public health experts were telling us that staying at home for a few weeks would “stop the spread” before life returned to normal again. The world certainly did not understand the severity of the pandemic that would turn out to be a once-in-a-century global event.
So how did we get here? The short answer: American innovation.
America’s free-enterprise system sparked innovation across every industry, with restaurants adjusting to offer curbside pickup or delivery, manufacturers across different sectors pitching in to produce hand sanitizer and pharmaceutical companies going into overdrive to fight COVID-19 with unprecedented manufacturing and distribution efforts. In less than a year, more than two dozen companies worked on developing a vaccine, and nearly one-quarter of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.
To make this happen, the government leaned on existing private sector partnerships while quickly allocating billions more for manufacturing new treatments and testing the efficacy of existing drugs. Congress worked to support the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and other public health entities, enabling them to share research and cut red tape so that drug makers could launch their industry wide fight against COVID-19.
Thankfully, the American free-market system spurs private innovation and helps products reach consumers quickly, especially in times of need. This is how we’ve led the charge in developing lifesaving drugs for decades and why we outpaced the world in COVID-19 vaccine development. Just look at the results: Americans can now receive widely available vaccines free of charge. This enables our nation to now begin returning to work and school, giving families the relief they’ve long needed.
But the need for U.S. pharmaceutical innovation will not end with this pandemic. We must ensure companies can continue to invest and innovate for future challenges — finding new cures for cancer, fighting diseases and ensuring we’re prepared for the next pandemic.
Thankfully, the American system has not caved to the mistakes of other nations. Countries that have implemented socialized medicine and price caps have seen innovation stall and access decline because they cannot pay for the newest and best drugs. The United States must continue to defend our free-market system from the failures of socialized medicine.
But sometimes, this is less straightforward than it seems. Rarely do we see bills in Congress that seek to change everything all at once. Instead, the changes typically happen slowly over time until you end up exactly where you did not want to be.
Right now, progressives want to tack price controls and Medicare negotiation onto the recently unveiled infrastructure proposal. Price controls, especially in the form of an international price index model, could skew market forces and dissuade innovators from continuing their ongoing production or research and development efforts. Moreover, Medicare negotiation would lead the federal government to penalize companies that could not meet certain price thresholds, thereby reducing available medicines for seniors and limiting access for all patients.
Can you see how this begins to add up?
America’s health innovators were more than prepared to embrace COVID-19. Public-private partnerships and our competitive free-market system ensured we already had the essential science and technology in place, enabling the government to step in quickly to boost companies’ speed and capacities to reach a scale previously unimagined.
This crisis has reminded us of why our system is the best in the world for patients. We cannot forget these lessons if we want to be ready for the next one. Policymakers must learn from this experience, defend against policies that would erode our system and apply the same sound principles of transparency and free enterprise to health policy moving forward.
Matthew Kandrach is president of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.
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Correction: A previous version of this op-ed misstated the number of vaccines developed by manufacturers in less than a year.