Bringing a COVID-19 vaccine to market will likely require the help of a private-sector pharmaceutical company with the capacity and experience to conduct costly clinical trials and then to manufacture millions of doses. Generating sufficient private-sector interest in vaccines for viral pandemics has proven difficult in the past. One concern facing pharmaceutical companies is that if they develop a vaccine, they will face overwhelming political pressure to make it available on the cheap.

Fortunately, the choice between incentives for innovation and affordability for patients is not either/or. Prizes can resolve the tension between innovation and affordability by accomplishing both. Committing to a substantial cash prize for a successful coronavirus vaccine will boost confidence among firms that their research efforts will be remunerated. And attaching the condition that the prizewinner must make its vaccine available to all at little or no cost will ensure that price is no barrier to immunity.

So-called “challenge prizes” have a long and storied history.