The good news about the COVID-19 pandemic is that vaccines that appear to be safe and thus far effective were developed in record time, and far more quickly than originally anticipated. It is a tribute to the medical researchers who ascertained the novel procedure for stimulating the body’s responses to the virus and produced the tool with which to do it. They are, so far, mostly anonymous to us, but their names should stand beside those like Jonas Salk, who gave us the potential to save millions of lives.
The bad news is everything else.
These medicines belong to all of us, worldwide. They should be produced in the greatest possible quantity as swiftly as can be, and distributed uniformly everywhere on earth. Jonas Salk, who gave us the first vaccine for polio, wanted not a dollar of personal profit from it. He said it made no more sense to reap financial reward from a benefaction to the human race than it was for the sun to charge us for shining.
Unfortunately, it’s a minority point of view.
In a rational — or shall we simply say a decent — world, we would have robust public health systems that, with their own laboratories and scientists, could be mobilized to combat pandemics as soon as they were recognized with the cooperation of all world governments. As many resources as necessary would be devoted to the task; all useful information would be shared as soon as available. All expenses would be paid. No profit would be made. You can make a buck off something less urgent than saving a life.
Instead, we have created a vast bottleneck in which supply for most of the world is controlled by a handful of pharmaceutical companies, directly or indirectly funded by public money, who control the medications by patent. In theory, vaccinations are available without private charge, which means, again, that public money is spent to purchase them, profit of course included. In practice, a vast black market has developed in which the rich and the connected can get their shots quickly while the rest of us wait on fate and whatever erratic dribbles of supply turn up to be distributed according to whatever the protocol of the day may be. The result, at least for the country with the world’s highest GDP, is what has been (and continues to be) 20 percent of the world’s COVID-19 cases and fatalities in an aggregate of 4 percent of the world’s population.
As bad as vaccine production has been, distribution has been worse. We can’t blame Donald Trump anymore, although perhaps a quarter of a million deaths can be laid directly at his door. On the ground, there is little more than chaos. And that’s where our great entrepreneurial university, Drexel, comes in. The nation now knows that a 22-year-old Drexel graduate student, Andrei Doroshin, with no public health experience or medical background, sold the Philadelphia Public Health Department and the City Council on the idea that his incorporated-on-the-fly Philly Fighting COVID, run by a gaggle of so far nameless fellow students, should receive and administer thousands of vaccine doses at a prime civic location, the Philadelphia Convention Center. It was to be the largest vaccination site in the city, although agreements were also pending with Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park.
What could go wrong with this, except incompetence and corruption? Even after the city severed its contract upon learning that, among other things, Doroshin had established a for-profit arm for his scam and siphoned off vaccines for private use, Mayor James Kenney and Public Health Commissioner William Farley warmly endorsed Doroshin’s “work.” Their resignations are pending, as is that of the City Council. Philadelphia, in a word, needs a new government.
Drexel’s thus-far exceedingly muted response to the scandal has been to deny any knowledge of or participation in it by anyone beyond a few bad actors it’s not responsible for. Let me sell you a bridge with that. Drexel has a medical school and a public health program. Doroshin’s contract with the city was abundantly publicized. Really, no one at Drexel saw anything to flag here? Right on.
If this were a one-off episode we could perhaps call it a freak occurrence, at least as far as Drexel was concerned. But, scroll back a couple of weeks in your Philadelphia Inquirer and you will find the story of one Gauravjit Singh, who has been arraigned in federal court in Newark on a charge of bilking over $700,000 from two companies that had contracted to provide New York City with medical gowns from a factory in China. There was no factory; there are no gowns. And there is no more money.
Singh, who lives in Philadelphia, also does business in New Jersey and Florida, and operates a drone-building startup called Dronecast. Like Doroshin, who also has numerous irons in the fire, he does more than offer phantom gowns for hard cash.
Singh, too, is a Drexel graduate.
When I came to Drexel, it was best known for its engineering programs. Engineers design and make things. Drexel engineers were known nationally for doing this well. Gradually, business and finance became Drexel’s calling card. It redefined itself as an “entrepreneurial” university and opened a school specifically dedicated to entrepreneurship. It also gave itself a motto, prominently displayed all over campus: “Ambition can’t wait.”
Andrei Doroshin and Gauravjit Singh are beginning to give us an idea of what these slogans may mean.
I don’t mean to suggest that Drexel teaches fraud. But the business world is awash in it. The CEO of Goldman Sachs recently took a pay cut of $10 million for a scheme that will cost his company billions in fines. That leaves him still with a heftier paycheck than yours or mine, $17.5 million. What, fire him? Please, no kidding. Wells Fargo is still in business after opening millions of fraudulent accounts to siphon off its customers’ deposits, among other “enterprises.” It’s still doing much the same thing. Jail its managers? Nationalize its operations? Perish the thought.
Drexel does indicate where it thinks merit is to be rewarded in conferring honorary degrees — you know, things the rest of us have to work for. One of its recipients was Carl Icahn, who pioneered corporate raiding in the Reagan 80s, and is still in business. Another, I’ve just come to notice, is Rudy Giuliani, who received a doctorate from Drexel’s Law School in 2009. Rudy’s latest achievement, as you’ve no doubt heard, is to have joined Donald Trump in inciting the insurrection that led to the storming of the Capitol Building by an armed mob and that, but for a merciful Providence and a thin police line, might have eliminated the legislative branch of government, or at least its personnel.
Drexel’s Faculty Senate has called, by a vote of 43-3, for the rescission of Giuliani’s degree. John Fry, our entrepreneurial president, needs time to think about it.
We know, John. It’s a really hard call.