Against Regulatory Nationalism

By Alex Tabarrok

I’ve long argued that if a drug or medical device is approved in another country with a Stringent Regulatory Authority it ought to be approved in the United States. But, of course, the argument is even stronger in the other direction. Drugs and devices approved in the United States ought to be approved elsewhere. Indeed, this is how much of the world actually works because most countries do not have capability to evaluate drugs and devices the way the FDA or say the EMA does. Although it’s the way the world works, few will admit it because that would violate pretensions of regulatory nationalism. Moreover, keeping up with pretenses means transaction costs and unnecessary delays.

The price of such regulatory nationalism can be very high as indicated in this interview with Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest producer of vaccines.

Some people think the reason that rollout has been slow in many countries is because the developers who hold the patents on the vaccines have licensed too few manufacturers to make them. Do you agree?

No. There are enough manufacturers, it just takes time to scale up. And by the way, I have been blown away by the cooperation between the public and private sectors in the last year, in developing these vaccines. What I find really disappointing, what has added a few months to vaccine delivery – not just ours – is the lack of global regulatory harmonisation. Over the last seven months, while I’ve been busy making vaccines, what have the US, UK and European regulators been doing? How hard would it have been to get together with the World Health Organization and agree that if a vaccine is approved in the half-dozen or so major manufacturing countries, it is approved to send anywhere on the planet?

Instead we have a patchwork of approvals and I have 70m doses that I can’t ship because they have been purchased but not approved. They have a shelf life of six months; these expire in April.

Did you get that? Regulatory nationalism has added months to vaccine delivery and now threatens to put to waste millions of stockpiled doses.

Addendum: See also Scott Sumner on the costs of regulatory nationalism.