As late as this summer, many analysts were pushing their predictions for a vaccine in the fall of 2021, in line with the timeline of traditional treatments. If these new vaccines behave in the same way in nature as in clinical trials, the world will remember it as perhaps a bigger victory than Salk and Sabin against polio. If this new type of vaccine continues to work against other viruses as well, it will mark an epochal progress in vaccinology, closer to Pasteur and Jenner’s findings.
But a strange thing happened in our celebration of this scientific triumph. While we remember those historic advances as the work of individual scientists or laboratories, Covid-19 vaccines are instead written as a win for pharmaceutical companies.
The rule in press coverage seems to be that the largest brand involved gets the most credit. And so, every day now there are stories about the Pfizer vaccine (a collaboration between Pfizer and the German biotech company BioNTech); the Moderna vaccine (a partnership between the National Institutes of Health and Moderna); and the AstraZeneca vaccine (a leading non-mRNA candidate, de facto created by scientists at the University of Oxford and developed and distributed by AstraZeneca).
It’s an incredible public relations coup for an industry desperate to save its image. Just last month, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty and accepted penalties of over $ 8 billion after being prosecuted for her role in America’s horrific opioid crisis. Pfizer set a previous record for a pharmaceutical industry fraud settlement in 2009 for $ 2.3 billion in a case about its fraudulent marketing of a pain reliever, antipsychotic, and other drugs for conditions for which it had not received the drug. approval.
The turpitude of the pharmaceutical industry is so common that it has become part of the cultural background. The writers of the 1993 film “The Fugitive” knew they could find a perfectly plausible villain to threaten Harrison Ford in a faceless drug company intent on covering up his wrongdoing. (The film was a hit.) In John le Carré’s 2001 novel “The Constant Gardner,” a British diplomat who discovers a pharmaceutical giant who is testing dangerous drugs on poor Africans is just as easy to digest: his plot echoes to a real case involving Pfizer in Nigeria. (The company denied any wrongdoing and out of court settled the lawsuit filed by the families of the children who died in testing.)
Yet, ever since the pharmaceutical industry stepped in with vaccines, it seems generations of bad intentions are dissolving. Last year, the Gallup poll ranked the pharmaceutical industry as the most disliked in America, below both big oil and big government. By September, even before the vaccines arrived, the level of industry approval was already improving.
This is not lost in the industry itself. A financial analyst recently told this paper that Pfizer’s involvement in the coronavirus pandemic was “as much about public relations as it was a financial return.” In April, the CEO of Eli Lilly, the company that produced antibody therapy for Covid-19, told investors that the pandemic offered “a unique opportunity to reset the reputation of the industry.”
We’ve all been hoping for a vaccine for so long, by the time the medicine is finally delivered, it seems almost perverse to question the name on the vial. But the industry is not our savior. Each of these vaccine candidates is a complex science project with many collaborators and a substantial level of state support. Giving the industry not only praise but also vaccine control would be a mistake.
Even in the midst of this public relations coup, drug companies can’t help but get back to typing. They will profit profoundly from these vaccines, even when they claim to act selflessly. And they’re largely monopolizing access, which means millions in the global South may not get life-saving vaccines for months.
The mRNA vaccines that people are placing so high hopes on would not exist without public support at every stage of their development. Moderna is not a pharmaceutical giant. Indeed, it is, in a sense, an internal success story. The company, founded in 2010 after a group of American university professors acquired the support of a venture capitalist, has been working on this technology for years. But Moderna’s original work builds on previous findings by University of Pennsylvania scientists who received funding for their research from the National Institutes for Health.
Once the race for a vaccine began, governments stepped up their efforts. Moderna has received about $ 2.5 billion in federal research funding and supply over the past year from the government’s Operation Warp Speed program, as well as the shared technology the NIH had developed for previous coronavirus vaccines. The NIH has also provided extensive logistical support, overseeing clinical trials for tens of thousands of patients.
Pfizer, meanwhile, likes to say it avoids federal money to maintain independence. But it is co-producing and distributing a vaccine from BioNTech, a company that has received more than $ 440 million in funding from the German federal government. The vaccine is based on BioNTech technology, with Pfizer taking action to accelerate development and production.
Pfizer had never made an mRNA vaccine, but has adapted several factories to do so. Indeed, it has traded its immense capital and logistics network for trademark rights. Additionally, the U.S. government says that by placing an order of nearly $ 2 billion before the vaccine’s final clinical trials began, it removed significant financial risks for Pfizer.
The development of these vaccines involves a patchwork of academic research, biotech companies, public institutions, public money and Big Pharma. This has always been the case, but in the past governments and academic scientists were able to have far greater control over their contributions. Both Salk and Sabin made their findings on polio vaccine patent-free. At the time, Pfizer was a major manufacturer and distributor of the Sabin vaccine, making a decent profit for providing this service, but rightfully recognized as a small part of a larger whole.
What does this type of partnership give us today? The U.S. government has negotiated wholesale prices for both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, ranging from $ 15.25 to $ 19.50 per dose on several different contracts. This is significantly less than the $ 25 to $ 37 Modern claims it will charge governments around the world, but analysts suggest that even $ 19.50 could yield Pfizer a 60 to 80 percent profit margin. Moderna announced it won’t enforce its patents, but the company hasn’t forgotten about the profit opportunities.
Whenever it looks like we’re getting a good deal, it turns out to be even better for drug companies. Even seemingly altruistic actions could very well prove beneficial to the industry.
True, the Oxford agreement with AstraZeneca included a price-at-cost commitment to developing countries for now. But the Financial Times reported that a deal the company signed with at least one manufacturer indicated that this particular deal could be concluded by July. (The company said it will seek expert guidance on when it can declare an end to the pandemic.) And AstraZeneca’s deal with Oxford, according to the Financial Times, still allows for a healthy profit margin of up to 20%.
This is not surprising. The ship has long sailed on the idea that the giants of American capitalism would help anyone without extracting a tax. Even in this disaster, even after the unspeakable sacrifices that millions of ordinary people have made. The real problem isn’t the price – we’ll pay for it, of course – it’s about access.
With control over the production of these vaccines, these companies will largely supply them on their own schedule, using their own factories or licensed manufacturers, while other facilities around the world remain inactive. Governments will almost certainly order more approved vaccines in the weeks and months to come, but the production capacity of each company is limited. Companies should not only commit to waiving their patents, but also sharing all their technical knowledge so that other manufacturers can help produce the much needed vaccines.
As things stand, most people outside the high-risk categories will likely not be vaccinated until “later in 2021,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. Many countries in the global South are expected to be able to vaccinate up to 20 percent of their population by the end of next year. Project the current daily death toll on that timeline and despair.
It doesn’t have to be that way. What’s particularly irritating is that mRNA vaccines were supposed to be disruptive and liberating technology. They can be produced faster and simpler, in smaller and cheaper facilities – even basic laboratories – than traditional vaccines. Scientists envisioned a world where vaccines could be produced quickly, anywhere, for a small fraction of the cost of traditional vaccines.
This was before the industry intervened. Southern nations are calling for a suspension of patent rights for coronavirus vaccines and last month, American academics and activists – including Chelsea Clinton on behalf of the Clinton Foundation, which is hardly a revolutionary group – called for a similar plan, which includes the sharing of vaccine patents and the start of worldwide production. This would likely mean not only poorer nations, but you, the person reading this, will get vaccinated faster because more vaccine doses would be produced. None of this is likely to happen.
At the start of this pandemic, I remember feeling both horror at the calamity unfolding and a small sense of hope that, as in other troubled times, people would find ways to change the world for the better. There was talk of community support, mutual aid and the rediscovery of the positive powers of the state to protect its citizens. Now much of this has subsided and it often feels like we just want some relief: get back to how the world used to be and as soon as possible.
We have to go back to that place. Yet this could be the best chance in our life to break the grip of an industry that, until recently, was rightfully maligned. The public is closely following these developments, and the state support securing pharmaceutical profits couldn’t be more obvious: Operation Warp Speed alone has provided over $ 10 billion to the industry.
Pay him to get the vaccine, sure. This is a service. But we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for more: Public support should mean a public vaccine, which reaches people as quickly as possible, profitable or not. The pharmaceutical industry would not be able to rake in its profits and restore its reputation without the funding that comes from our tax dollars. We shouldn’t let Big Pharma forget that.