The news that we are running out of medicine to deal with snake venom in sub-Saharan Africa is not what economists call ‘market failure’, but it is a failure of the market. According to MSF, five million people are bitten by snakes each year, and 100,000 die.
Part of the problem is, of course, that victims are poor. MSF comment that “antivenom treatment can cost up to US$250-500 per victim, representing the equivalent of four years of salary in the countries concerned.” In this case, Sanofi have decided to focus their production on something else that is important (rabies treatments), but will yield them better profits. It’s a commercial decision, which is no ground for criticism; they are doing what private producers do. Market theorists make a great deal of the market as an engine of choice, but they tend to focus on the choices of consumers; they often forget that producers get to make choices, too. The nature of market provision is that there will always be some degree of selection, and so that there will always be some kind of gap. That is why nothing that really matters can ever be left to markets altogether.