Alexander Zaitchik, "Owning the Sun: A People's History of Monopoly Medicine from Aspirin to COVID-19 Vaccines" (Counterpoint, 2022)


Although the dividing line between private life and public responsibilities can never be definite and clear, there is a moral threshold which is crossed both by those who assume power to change the lives of many men through public action and by those who undertake to represent in a public role the will and interests of many other men. A new responsibility, and even a new kind of responsibility, and new moral conflicts, present themselves.

– Stuart Hampshire, foreword to Public and Private Morality (1978)

Hampshire’s thoughts help articulate the inherent tensions underlying an institutionalized system of monopoly medicine that has commandeered the myth of free-market ideology in an ongoing and highly successful effort to profit from pharmaceutical patents generated by U.S. government-funded scientific research. This is the broader thesis of investigative journalist Alexander Zaitchik’s latest book, Owning the Sun: A People’s History of Monopoly Medicine from Aspirin to COVID-19 published by Counterpoint in March of 2022.

Zaitchik highlights the politics and players from founding fathers to the FDA’s Francis Kelsey to Hayek and the Chicago School in an engaging and well-researched narrative laying bare the situational ethics across the professional domains of the pharmaceutical industry, publicly-funded university research, and medicine more broadly while highlighting the public-private tension baked into our ‘free market’ political economy and its reification of knowledge through patent and intellectual property law.

Zaitchik’s narrative deftly outlines how generations of public health and science advocates have attempted to hold the line against pharmaceutical special interests and their allies in government while documenting privatized medicine’s evolution in the U.S. and its globalizing effects. From the controversial arrival of patent-seeking German chemical companies in the late nineteenth century to present-day coordination between industry and philanthropic organizations—including the influential Gates Foundation—that defeated efforts to loosen intellectual property restrictions for countries to produce vaccines against COVID-19. Relevant and smartly written with a disturbing message for everyone who cares about the cost and access of medicine.

Listeners will find the book and Zaitchik’s observations in this interview engaging as well as his 2018 article in The New Republic that previews part of the book’s larger thesis:

Complement and expand the topic focus with these recent NBN segments:

1) Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World (2022) written by Peter S. Goodman and

interviewed by Caleb Zakarin.

2) Disorder: A History of Reform, Reaction, and Money in American Medicine (2021) written by Peter

S. Swanson and interviewed by Stephen Pimpare.

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist and contributor to Atlantic magazine, The New Republic, The Nation and Foreign Policy among others, and has authored four books including this latest just published by Counterpoint Press in Berkeley.

Keith Krueger lectures at the SILC Business School in Shanghai University.

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