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How Big Pharma Took Over Medicine

A conversation with Alexander Zaitchik, author of “Owning the Sun: A People’s History of Monopoly Medicine From Aspirin to Covid-19 Vaccines”

Two masked female science researchers assess results in a lab in Washington
Karen Ducey/Getty Images
Research scientists working on the Covid-19 vaccine at a University of Washington lab in 2020

The New Republic’s literary editor, Laura Marsh, spoke last week with journalist Alexander Zaitchik, frequent TNR contributor and author of the new book, Owning the Sun: A People’s History of Monopoly Medicine From Aspirin to Covid-19 Vaccines.

Zaitchik’s book details how Big Pharma became what it is today—from the dawn of patents to the Covid-19 vaccine and beyond. How did the development of medicines go from being a field oriented to the public good to one dominated by private monopoly interests and profiteering?

Owning the Sun explores the contentious fight over the legal right to control the production of life-saving pharmaceuticals. Since World War II, federally funded research has facilitated most major medical breakthroughs, yet these drugs are often wholly controlled by price-gouging corporations with growing international ambitions. Why does the U.S. government fund the development of medical science in the name of the public only to relinquish exclusive rights to drug companies? How does such a system impoverish us, weaken our responses to global crises, and, as in the case of AIDS and Covid-19, put the world at risk?

Detailing how generations of public health and science advocates have attempted to hold the line against Big Pharma and its allies in government, Alexander Zaitchik’s first-of-its-kind history documents the rise of medical monopoly in the United States and its subsequent globalization. From the controversial arrival of patent-wielding German drug firms in the late nineteenth century to present-day coordination between industry and philanthropic organizations—including the influential Gates Foundation—which stymie international efforts to vaccinate the world against Covid-19, Owning the Sun tells one of the most important and least understood histories of our time.

Watch Alexander Zaitchik’s conversation with Laura Marsh: