All hail our innovative Big Pharma overlords, riding to the rescue to save the world from the scourge of covid-19 with their vaccine developed at record-breaking speed!
Well, not quite. First of all, Pfizer and BioNtech’s vaccine will be going to the wealthy nations first, and those poor folk in the global south may get access sometime thereafter, if they are lucky. The US refused to join Covax, an international alliance to ensure worldwide distribution regardless of where the vaccine is developed first.
The US Government is paying $1.95 billion for the first 100 million batch of BNT162b2 – not a price every country in the world could afford. Pfizer has committed to a further 500 million for the US, and already has deals lined up with the UK and the EU – but what about Latin America? Africa? Asia? Since two doses are required per person and Pfizer plans to produce 1.3 billion doses in 2021, you can do the maths – it’s The West First.
The UK agreed to join Covax on the final day, but that didn’t prevent them from signing independent agreements, and it’s been pretty shoddy in it’s vaccine hoarding, pre-ordering five vaccines per person by September and still looking to sign deals for other potential winners of the vaccine arms race thereafter. By September, of the eight vaccine candidates at phase three trials, wealthy nations had signed deals for more than two billion doses. Hoarding drives up the price for poorer countries and delays getting the vaccine to everyone. There is a long and nasty history of vaccine imperialism.
Still, you’ve got to be impressed by Pfizer’s efficiency, haven’t you? Well, only in the sense that they just started work on the problem when the pandemic struck. But if Big Pharma was using the expertise of its scientists for the greatest good, it would have been working on this for decades. The majority of the work in developing vaccines to tackle coronavirus can and should have already been done long before the specific covid-19 strain ever turned up. But Big Pharma didn’t want to put money into researching vaccines to address a problem that didn’t yet exist in the west. There was no profit in vaccines. As Mike Davis points out in ‘The Monster at Our Door’, a book which warned of the looming threat of a pandemic way back in 2005, Pfizer made more from from a single anti-cholesterol medication than from all the vaccines in the world combined.
“The giants prefer to invest in marketing rather than research, in rebranded old products rather than new ones, and in treatment rather than prevention,” Davis wrote, “in fact, they currently spend 27 per cent of their revenue on marketing and only 11 per cent on research…Vaccine manufacturing in general is widely regarded as a broken-down old railroad to be off-loaded at the first opportunity rather than repaired and modernised. Big Pharma, by and large, has spurned the little biotech startups in San Diego, Austin, and Boston that have been searching for capital to develop exciting new recombinant and genetically engineered vaccines.”
Oh, and Pfizer and BioNtech’s innovation has been backed by $445 million from the German government to build manufacturing and development capacity. Behind every good capitalist innovation, there is public money.
So, well done to the scientists – but please, let’s not start celebrating the wonders of Big Pharma, not until they decide to forego their covid-19 patents and profits, and distribute the drug around the world with the only criteria being who is most in need of the vaccine. And what’s the chances of that?
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