SARS-CoV-2, or the coronavirus, has been spreading rapidly across the globe in recent weeks. It has dominated media coverage since it appeared right after the new year. On December 31, 2019, Chinese authorities were treating dozens of pneumonia cases with unknown causes. On January 11th, China reported its first death from the disease. Since then, that death toll has increased to over 3,800 confirmed deaths. Governments have confirmed over 110,000 cases of the virus to this date. While the numbers seem overwhelming, there is a reason for hope. Around 80% of cases are mild to moderate, and non-life threatening, according to Ars Technica. While most see this for what it is, a tragedy, others see opportunity. Coronavirus profiteering has become a widespread, global phenomenon that the government has abdicated its responsibility to preclude.
When most people think of profiteering, they likely think of it in conjunction with war or conflict. While coronavirus profiteering seems less harmful than profiteering based on weapons sales, the impact of the former should not be underestimated.
There are two primary forms of profiteering when it comes to the coronavirus. The first is much more rudimentary than the second, and it involves individuals stockpiling resources people would want during the epidemic before them being sold out. The individuals will then resell the products on public marketplaces, mostly online, at prices reaching up to 100 times their original market price. The Guardian reports that Amazon has had to remove “tens of thousands” of listings that have been determined to be price gouging. eBay is reportedly banning the sale of price-gouged items like hand sanitizer, surgical masks, and disinfecting wipes, as per the U.S.A. Today.
While companies taking a leading role in self-regulation for public benefit is good, it is insufficient. Lack of tangible punishment for price gouging outside of the items being removed and a possible ban from the website are insufficient. The items always pop up again, just with new sellers, often new accounts created by those previously banned. This form of profiteering presents a real danger because it denies low-income people access to items that could help reduce the spread of the virus.
The second form of coronavirus profiteering is even more damaging than the first. It involves the companies involved in developing vaccines to combat the virus price gouging their products to maximize profit. External companies like Amazon or eBay are taken out as the middlemen, meaning only government intervention can check back against this kind of profiteering.
So far, the government has failed to do so. According to The Intercept, President Trump repeatedly refused to impose a reasonable pricing rule for subsidies provided to companies involved in coronavirus drug research and development and testing and screening for the virus itself. Lack of governmental regulation could lock-in inequities in access to the vaccine, leaving tens of thousands of impoverished people to die. The Trump administration must step up and impose a reasonable pricing rule as a condition for accepting any government funds for research into combatting the disease, or technology for testing whether patients have the virus.