The US pharmaceutical giant cashing in on a pandemic that has killed 3.2m people while failing to help the world’s poor is morally indefensible, and illustrates the corrupt nature of monopoly medicine.
As the New York Times reported, Pfizer generated hundreds of millions in profits in the first quarter of 2021, thanks to its successful Covid-19 vaccine. What’s interesting about the company’s success, however, is that its vaccine is one of just two widely used that are produced on a for-profit basis – and the only one whose manufacturer is not reliant on it to stay afloat. Pfizer’s windfall this year is, in essence, a windfall for monopoly medicine.
Unlike its Western competitors Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, Pfizer decided early to profit from its vaccine. That profit margin hasn’t been disclosed, but it was predicted that this would be in the high 20% range. That means that, of the $3.5 billion brought in by the vaccine this quarter, about $900m is pre-tax profit.
Unlike Moderna, a competitor that uses similar vaccine technology to Pfizer’s, Pfizer is an extraordinarily profitable company already, making $9.6 billion in profits in 2020 before the vaccine had even had a serious impact. Moderna has no other products on the market, so turning a profit on its vaccine is crucial for its operation. Not so for Pfizer.
Pfizer sells its vaccine sales at different rates. The United States, for example, pays $19.50 for each dose, while Israel has reportedly paid $30.The reason all this is morally justifiable, Pfizer has said repeatedly, is that it was never part of the US government’s Operation Warp Speed and therefore should be allowed to set its own prices.
However, this is deceptive. BioNTech, the company that actually developed the vaccine, after which Pfizer basically slapped its label on it, received a $455 million grant from the German government and got around $6 billion in purchase commitments from the US and EU. Not only that, but the Pfizer vaccine is based on mRNA technology patented by the National Institutes of Health that was funded by US taxpayers.
In a nutshell, Pfizer capitalized on a partnership with a then-obscure German biotech company that received German government grants to develop its vaccine based on US taxpayer-funded technology, and then received purchasing guarantees from rich governments that guaranteed billions of dollars in revenue. It managed to privatize all the profits while socializing all the risk in what was a textbook case of how corrupt Big Pharma is.
But the scope of this monumental corruption really shines through when you consider that this is a once-in-several-lifetimes public health emergency that has killed millions of people. Governments around the world promised a warlike response to the Covid-19 pandemic and yet it’s mostly been just business as usual.
As I mentioned in my previous piece for RT on Bill Gates, global capitalism has reinforced itself through the pandemic, with Big Pharma being no exception. Intellectual property (IP) laws, which have only been defended in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations by rich countries, are demonstrably a barrier to getting vaccine doses out – and everyone knows it.
Even US President Joe Biden said on the campaign trail in 2020 that he would suspend IP rights to make vaccines more affordable around the globe.
“Absolutely, positively. This is the only humane thing in the world to do,” Biden said. (I’m sure the fact that Pfizer was among the companies that handed over a maximum $1 million donation to Biden’s inauguration had nothing to do with his about-face…)
But not only has IP been an issue, but even the general cost and logistics of transporting the Pfizer vaccine has proven a challenge for nations, especially poorer ones, that want to receive it. Yet, somehow, the Pfizer vaccine is emerging as the predominant Covid-19 vaccine shipped by Western countries, while lower-cost, less-intensive vaccines are being discredited.
Aside from the obvious fact that China’s vaccines or Russia’s Sputnik V are being refused for consideration, are being delayed for review by other countries, or are being conspiratorially attacked by Western media, there does seem to be some kind of bias in favor of Pfizer, even among Western vaccine-makers.
Consider that Oxford University published a study on April 15 showing that the risk of portal vein thrombosis (a blood clot in the liver) appears to be 30 times higher with the mRNA vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer (that is, the two for-profit vaccines) than with AstraZeneca’s. Consider also that the risk of cerebral vein thrombosis (a blood clot in the brain) appears to be quite similar with both AstraZeneca (five in a million) and those mRNA vaccines (four in a million).
So, while blood-clotting concerns have caused controversy and even the discontinuation of vaccines made by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, any mention of this from mRNA vaccines in the media has been pretty much nonexistent. That’s quite strange.
Also, headlines trumpet all the time how highly effective Pfizer’s vaccine is, placing huge importance on the percentage of its effectiveness without adding context. As the Vox YouTube channel masterfully explained in a video posted in March, it’s extremely difficult to compare vaccines – especially as they’re being tested in different parts and at different times.
Pfizer’s chief executive promised to ensure that poorer countries “have the same access as the rest of the world” to its vaccine. But as of last month, wealthy nations had secured more than 87% of the more than 700 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines dispensed worldwide, while poorer countries had received only 0.2%, according to the World Health Organization.
Pfizer has pledged 40 million doses to Covax, the partnership aimed at supplying vaccines to poor countries. But, as the New York Times report points out, that’s less than 2% of the 2.5 billion doses it aims to produce this year.
Now, none of this is to say that Pfizer’s vaccine is not effective and you shouldn’t take it. I received the Pfizer vaccine and will get my second dose on Friday. The best vaccine is the one you have access to. But the problem is that Pfizer’s seems to be getting too much free exposure in the media, despite the fact it's expensive, difficult to transport, and held under IP protections, making it inaccessible to most people in the world right now.
Pfizer has successfully maneuvered our corrupt system to rake in record profits with virtually no risk at all. It’s sad to say, but this happens all the time. However, right now, it’s only artificially prolonging a once-in-a-century pandemic that, I think most of us can agree, is destroying our lives. Let Pfizer’s success this year be a historic reminder of why capitalism and public health are totally incompatible.