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Planet Money: Why The Market For Emergency Vaccines Is Like No Other

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: If there is a desire for something and if people will pay for it, historically the market will provide it. So why, with all of the drugmakers out there, is there no vaccine for COVID-19? It is not just that emergency vaccines take time to develop; it's that the market for them is really unusual. Here's Sarah Gonzalez with our Planet Money podcast.

GONZALEZ: Rick Bright is with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority in Washington, D.C. - BARDA. They help prepare and respond to things from nuclear and chemical threats to biological threats - things in nature that can kill you, like the coronavirus. So he's super busy.

RICK BRIGHT: Very, very long days right now.

GONZALEZ: OK. Now, the regular nonemergency vaccine market, like the vaccines you get as a kid - the one for the chickenpox or the measles - that vaccine market is fine. Pharmaceutical companies can predict that market size. But the market for emergency vaccines to treat things like new coronaviruses or pandemic flu, that's the problem.

BRIGHT: With something like an emerging infectious disease such as Zika or MERS or SARS or this novel coronavirus, there's really no long-term promise of a revenue stream for those vaccines.

GONZALEZ: Here's why - outbreaks go away, sometimes on their own - right? - like SARS in 2003. That was a coronavirus, too, also probably from bats. SARS came then went.

BRIGHT: Unfortunately, when the virus disappeared, the funding tended to disappear with it. And the companies that were making a SARS virus vaccine lost interest and shipped it back to their more profitable vaccines.

GONZALEZ: Companies don't love rushing to develop a new vaccine for outbreaks that might go away. They'd have no buyers. So in 2001, in the middle of an anthrax scare and an avian flu scare, the U.S. decided to be the buyer - told companies, just make an anthrax antidote; make a flu vaccine. We will be the market; we promise to buy them even if these things go away.

BRIGHT: Absolutely. That's the commitment - that if you make these for us, then we will buy them from you.

GONZALEZ: Congress set aside billions of dollars for this. They share the cost of developing these new products, share the cost of paying the researchers, building the facilities - even today. But vaccines require time - and sometimes chickens.

BRIGHT: In a pandemic influenza outbreak, you need 900,000 chicken eggs every single day for a six-to-nine-month period of time to make the vaccine supply needed just for the United States.

GONZALEZ: And during the anthrax/avian flu scare, there was only one company in the U.S. making a flu vaccine. The rest were in other countries. So the government was like, we got to start making more on U.S. soil.

BRIGHT: We can't rely on other countries to share vaccines with us.

GONZALEZ: Meaning, like, we should have our own chickens in the United States laying eggs so that we can make an avian flu vaccine?

BRIGHT: One of the first thing we did was secure a large number of chicken flocks.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) Where are they?

BRIGHT: A lot of farms that we have in undisclosed places. As you can imagine, it's our national security.

GONZALEZ: It's a secret, where they are?

BRIGHT: It's a national security secret.

GONZALEZ: The government steps in to do things the free market won't, like keep chickens on hand just in case there's a pandemic flu. The government is also helping to fund a vaccine for the new coronavirus.

Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIFTS OR CREATURES' "MANITOU PASSAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.