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President Joe Biden speaks at a Pfizer facility

President Joe Biden speaks at the Pfizer Kalamazoo Manufacturing Site on February 19, 2021 in Portage, Michigan. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Advocates Say Biden's New Vaccine Production Project Must Be Publicly Owned

"The alternative," warned one expert, "is to repeat early pandemic mistakes and allow pharmaceutical corporations to make these life-and-death decisions, controlling in secrecy the publicly-funded medical tools needed to end pandemics."

Jake Johnson

Instead of fully handing the production of taxpayer-funded coronavirus vaccines over to private companies motivated by profit—an approach that experts say has failed disastrously thus far—the Biden administration should keep all new domestic manufacturing capacity under government ownership to ensure that public health needs are prioritized over corporate interests.

"A public facility would give the government freedom to make decisions regarding supply, price, and global cooperation."

That's the central argument of a report published Tuesday by PrEP4All, Public Citizen, and Partners In Health, advocacy groups that for months have been pressuring President Joe Biden to retain public control of mRNA vaccine manufacturing.

Last week, the White House outlined a new plan to expand U.S. vaccine production capacity in order to make an additional billion vaccine doses each year—a proposal that gave the progressive trio a fresh opportunity to double down on its demand for public ownership.

"The U.S. has lost trillions of dollars and nearly a million lives to a pandemic, but still does not have the capacity to rapidly respond to new threats with new technologies," Peter Maybarduk, access to medicines director at Public Citizen, said in a statement Tuesday. "A public facility would give the government freedom to make decisions regarding supply, price, and global cooperation."

"The alternative," added Maybarduk, "is to repeat early pandemic mistakes and allow pharmaceutical corporations to make these life-and-death decisions, controlling in secrecy the publicly-funded medical tools needed to end pandemics."

In their new report, PrEP4All, Public Citizen, and Partners In Health make the case for organizing all future coronavirus vaccine manufacturing under the so-called government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) model, an alternative to an approach under which production facilities are both contractor-owned and contractor-operated.

"GOCOs have historically been used to manufacture some of the most complex technology ever produced. For example, America's arsenal of nuclear weapons are produced completely by GOCOs," the groups note. "The U.S. government even uses the GOCO model already to produce vaccines."

The fact that the GOCO model is already widely used by the federal government, the groups argue, "reflects its inherent structural advantages over other models of public-private cooperation, especially in the context of manufacturing technologies."

"Scale-up of manufacturing for complex technologies is necessarily capital intensive and requires hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. Often, the federal government does not have the skills required to operate manufacturing facilities," the report notes. "However, simply giving away taxpayer money to a private corporation to build a capital asset that the government does not own or control necessarily leaves the government in a vulnerable position. In such a scenario, the private corporation then owns the asset funded with taxpayer dollars, and can use this asset for other purposes or even leave the business entirely."

"The Biden administration's current approach to building additional mRNA vaccine capacity... is deeply flawed."

"The GOCO model," the report continues, "ensures that the taxpayer-funded capital asset will be operated for the purposes the government intends while simultaneously leveraging skillsets of private industry to ensure rapid, efficient, and cost-effective achievement of the government's goals."

The new report was released as experts continue to raise concerns that Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing—which is currently monopolized by private companies such as Pfizer and Moderna—is lagging well behind global needs as the virus continues to spread and kill thousands of people across the globe each day.

Some experts estimate that the world needs 22 billion additional mRNA vaccine doses to overcome the pandemic, which has killed at least 6 million people over a two-year span.

James Krellenstein, executive director of PrEP4All, said Tuesday that "the Biden administration's current approach to building additional mRNA vaccine capacity—critical to this nation’s biosecurity—is deeply flawed."

"Simply investing taxpayer dollars into facilities that government neither owns nor can directly oversee will repeat the same mistakes that have plagued the U.S. government's pandemic preparedness efforts for 30 years," Krellenstein added. "It didn't work when the Obama administration invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Emergent, and it didn't work when the Biden administration invested over $100 million in Merck. How much taxpayer money does this administration need to waste before it learns its lesson?"

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