Pfizer has had an exceptionally good pandemic. On Feb. 9, it announced that its COVID-19 vaccine brought in US$37 billion last year, making it easily the most lucrative medicine in any given year in history.
That is not all. For a company that was until recently the least trusted company in the least trusted industrial sector in the US, COVID-19 has been a PR coup. Pfizer has become a household name over the last 12 months. The company was toasted on nights out in Tel Aviv, and there are cocktails named after its vaccine in bars across the world.
US President Joe Biden referred to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla as a “good friend,” and the great man parked his jet next to that of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at last year’s G7 summit in Cornwall.
The global vaccine rollout has created levels of inequality so great that many call it a “vaccine apartheid.” Pharmaceutical corporations such as Pfizer have led this rollout, setting the terms by which they sell vaccines and deciding who to prioritize. Ultimately, their approach affects who does, and does not, receive vaccines.
Right from the start, Pfizer was clear that it wanted to make a lot of money from COVID-19. The company claims that its vaccine costs under US$7 per dose to produce. Others have suggested it could be much cheaper.
Either way, the company is selling doses at a huge profit. The British government paid ￡18 (US$24.35) per shot for its first order and ￡22 for its most recent purchase. That means the British National Health Service has paid a mark-up of at least ￡2 billion — six times the cost of the pay raise the British government agreed to give nurses last year.
It has been claimed that the company initially tried to pitch their medicine to the US government for an eye-popping US$100 a dose. Former US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden accused the firm of “war profiteering.”
Pfizer has sold the vast majority of its doses to the richest countries in the world — a strategy sure to keep its profits high. If you look at its global distribution, Pfizer sells a tiny proportion of its vaccines to low-income countries.
By October last year, Pfizer had sold a measly 1.3 percent of its supply to COVAX, the international body established to ensure fairer access to vaccines.
Pfizer was not selling many doses to poorer countries, but neither would it allow them to produce the life-saving vaccine on their own through licensing or patent sharing.
That is because at the root of the Pfizer model are a set of intellectual property rules laid down in trade deals. These effectively allow big pharmaceutical corporations to operate as monopolies, with no responsibility to share the knowledge they own, however much society needs it.
Early on, the WHO recognized that we would need to scale up production rapidly, and that individual corporations such as Pfizer simply would not have the necessary capacity.
They urged companies to share vaccine recipes, creating a sort of “patent pool” known as CTAP, which would have allowed openness and collaboration. Companies would still have been paid, but they would not be able to restrict production.
PATENTS NOT WAIVED
This sort of suspension of normal business rules during times of great need was previously common, such as with penicillin during the second world war, or sharing smallpox vaccine knowledge in the 1960s.
In this case, Pfizer’s chief went on the offensive, deriding CTAP as “nonsense” — and saying it was “dangerous” to share companies’ intellectual property.
It has been claimed that 100 factories and laboratories around the world could have been making vaccines, but have been unable to do so because they cannot access patents and recipes such as those held by Pfizer.
Pfizer took a similar line on the new facility that has been set up in South Africa to try to get to grips with mRNA vaccines so that it can share this revolutionary medical technology with the world. Because neither Pfizer nor Moderna share their knowhow, the scientists have had to start from scratch.
News earlier this month suggests that these countries are getting there, confounding the pharmaceutical industry’s claims that you could not possibly make such a vaccine in poorer nations.
There are many who would say that while large pharmaceutical companies do behave ruthlessly, we must accept it because the service they provide — inventing lifesaving medicines — is so crucial.
However, this does not hold. Companies such as Pfizer behave more like hedge funds, buying up other firms and intellectual property rather than traditional medical research companies.
The truth is, they are not the sole inventors of the vaccine. That was the work of public money, university research and a much smaller company, Germany’s BioNTech. As one former US government official said, the fact we call it the “Pfizer” vaccine is “the biggest marketing coup in the history of American pharmaceuticals.”
A 2018 analysis by the Stat health Web site concluded that Pfizer developed only a fraction — about 23 percent — of its drugs in-house. Also, a US Government Accountability Office report the previous year noted that the industry model is increasingly used to simply buy up smaller firms that have already developed products.
This allows the large pharmaceutical companies to monopolize that knowledge and maximize the price of the resulting medicines. Pfizer has channeled US$70 billion to its shareholders directly through dividend payments and stock buybacks. This dwarfs its research budget for the same period.
To put today’s figures in context, the world’s most lucrative drug in any single year up to this point was Humira, which treats autoimmune diseases, and which generated its owner, AbbVie, US$20 billion in 2018.
Humira was studied by a US congressional committee, and is a classic case of how big pharmaceutical companies work today: Buy up a drug that has already been invented, patent it to the hilt and increase the price 470 percent over its lifetime.
Corporations such as Pfizer should never have been put in charge of a global vaccination rollout, because it was inevitable they would make life-and-death decisions based on what is in the short-term interest of their shareholders.
We need to dismantle the monopolies that have handed these financialized beasts such power, and instead invest in a new network of research institutes and medical factories around the world that can actually serve the public.
Nick Dearden is director of Global Justice Now.
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