Paying pharmaceutical firms for capacity is problematic

Castillo et al. 2021 (doi:10.1126/science.abg0889) make many valid points, e.g., vaccine production should be greatly expanded using taxpayer money because the quicker recovery from the pandemic more than pays for the expansion. Castillo et al. also suggest paying pharmaceutical manufacturers for the capacity they install instead of the quantity they produce. The reasoning of the authors is that producers are delaying installing capacity and the delivery of their promised vaccine quantities to save costs and to supply higher-paying buyers first, because the penalties for delaying are small. Producers refuse to sign contracts with larger penalties.

What the authors do not mention is that the same problems occur when paying for capacity. In addition, the capacity needs to be monitored, which is more difficult than checking the delivered quantity. Before large-scale production, how to detect the „Potemkin capacity” of installing cheap production lines unsuitable for large quantities? The manufacturer may later simply claim technical glitches when the production line does not work. Effective penalties are needed, which in turn requires motivating the producer to sign a contract containing these, just like for a quantity contract.

Paying in advance for capacity before the vaccine is proven to work insures firms against the risk of failure, as Castillo et al. say. The problem is that such advance payment also attracts swindlers who promise a miracle cure and then run with the money – there is adverse selection in who enters the government’s capacity contract scheme. Thus capacity contracts should be restricted to firms with a good established reputation. However, vaccines from innovative entrants may also be needed, which suggests continuing to use quantity contracts at least for some firms. If the law requires treating firms equally, then they should all be offered a similar contract.

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