When is Prevention More Profitable than Cure?

The Impact of Time-Varying Consumer Heterogeneity

CID Working Paper No. 252
Michael Kremer and Christopher Snyder
January 2013


We argue that in pharmaceutical markets, variation in the arrival time of consumer heterogeneity creates differences between a producer’s ability to extract consumer surplus with preventives and treatments, potentially distorting R&D decisions. If consumers vary only in disease risk, revenue from treatments—sold after the disease is contracted, when disease risk is no longer a source of private information—always exceeds revenue from preventives. The revenue ratio can be arbitrarily high for sufficiently skewed distributions of disease risk. Under some circumstances, heterogeneity in harm from a disease, learned after a disease is contracted, can lead revenue from a treatment to exceed revenue from a preventative. Calibrations suggest that skewness in the U.S. distribution of HIV risk would lead firms to earn only half the revenue from a vaccine as from a drug. Empirical tests are consistent with the predictions of the model that vaccines are less likely to be developed for diseases with substantial disease-risk heterogeneity.

Keywords:pharmaceuticals, vaccines, drugs
JEL codes:O31, L11, I18, D42

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Affiliated Research Program:
Growth Lab