Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar is consulting editor of The Economic Times. He has frequently been a consultant to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. A popular columnist: 

Arguably, the most-hated industry in the world is the pharmaceutical industry. Since dying people will pay anything, the normal price resistance of consumers disappears. So, profit margins for new patented drugs can be humongous.

When anti-AIDS drug cocktails were invented in the 1990s, US drug companies charged a whopping $15,000 per year. This created an uproar. To mollify critics, major US companies offered the drug “at cost” to poor countries — just $1,500, they said.

But Cipla, an Indian company, was already exporting the drugs at just $800. Cipla was lambasted by US companies as a “pirate” violating patents.

Cipla retorted that the US companies were the real robbers and pirates. US President Bill Clinton ultimately sided with the activists.

Production shifted massively to countries like India, and prices kept falling. By 2010, the cost was just $200. No wonder activists denounced US drug companies as killers. Yet, ironically, these very companies had created the cures and saved millions.

Production shifted massively to countries like India, and prices kept falling. By 2010, the cost was just $200. No wonder activists denounced US drug companies as killers. Yet, ironically, these very companies had created the cures and saved millions.

The hated drug industry has just performed a miracle, producing several different vaccines against Covid in a few months. It had proved impossible to develop any vaccine at all for several viruses, including AIDS. When Covid struck, sober specialists noted that new vaccines took at least five years to be created, tested and approved. Bill Gates said we would be lucky to get an anti-Covid vaccine in 18 months. Yet in less than a year, vaccines galore have emerged. Russia and China were among the first to create and approve their own vaccines. Western experts cautioned that these countries had not followed all the usual safety protocols. However, it can make sense to shorten test procedures to expedite a vaccine that could save millions of lives.

Pfizer and Moderna in the US have produced vaccines following the usual protocols and are ready for mass vaccination. AstraZeneca and Oxford University have developed a different vaccine which — at the insistence of Oxford University — will be sold at just $3-4 per dose in poor countries. This vaccine can be stored at 2 to 7 degrees Celsius in ordinary refrigerators, making it suitable for poor countries like India lacking the super-cooling facilities required by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Pfizer and Moderna in the US have produced vaccines following the usual protocols and are ready for mass vaccination. AstraZeneca and Oxford University have developed a different vaccine which — at the insistence of Oxford University — will be sold at just $3-4 per dose in poor countries. This vaccine can be stored at 2 to 7 degrees Celsius in ordinary refrigerators, making it suitable for poor countries like India lacking the super-cooling facilities required by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

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