News of a vaccine for Covid-19 is for millions of people a source of hope. It’s a way out of the misery of lockdown, the constant fear for friends and family, and the news of relentlessly rising death tolls.
But in the boardrooms of many giant pharmaceutical companies there is optimism for a very different reason—it is the prospect of huge profits ahead.
Even as the virus spread in January and February this year, many “Big Pharma” firms were reluctant to enter the race for a vaccine. They knew from previous epidemics that research is generally expensive, slow and prone to failure.
What, they asked, if the coronavirus simply went away, as the Sars virus did only a few years ago? Even if research created new knowledge, the firms would be left with apparently worthless investments.
Two things changed the bosses’ minds.
First, as the virus spread around the world to become a pandemic, the size of the potential market for a vaccine grew enormously. Then came scientific predictions that the coronavirus could become a permanent feature, a recurring threat to the whole of humanity.
If true, that would mean people will need not only a one-time vaccination, but potentially a lifetime of regular top-ups. The three drug giants that sell the world vaccines for common flu—Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline and Seqirus—know what that means. Together they have flu jab sales worth up to £4 billion a year.
Now Big Pharma’s financial analysts predicted there could be £7.22 billion in global sales of Covid-19 vaccines in 2021, and much more to follow.
The talk of a massive new market whet their appetites.
Second, governments desperate to avoid lockdowns and the risks to profits that follow, decided to hand over astronomical sums to the pharmaceutical industry.
The money was a bribe to persuade them to them to invest in research, development and manufacturing.
Some of the wealthiest companies in the world, as well as some smaller start‑ups, were handed billions of dollars by the US government in “Operation Warp Speed”.
AstraZeneca got £900 million, Pfizer £1.4 billion and Sanofi/GlaxsoSmithKline £1.5 billion.
In Britain, the government-initiated Vaccine Taskforce ploughed some £33.6 billion of public money into a mixture of public and private sector research groups.
Various universities, and firms such as Novavax, Johnson and Johnson and Fujifilm Diosynth, all received funding.
This rush of money not only ensured that research started, but also secured for the state millions of doses any potential vaccine. Now heavily funded by the public purse, pharmaceutical companies with potential vaccines could grab a double win.
Moderna, whose trial drug claims near 95 percent effectiveness, was able to claim over £1.8 billion from Operation Warp Speed.
It is now planning to sell its vaccine for up to £45 an injection—more than ten times the price of some of its rivals. Its total production cost, including research, was just £18 per vial.
David Mitchell, founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs, a US campaign group, says, “Moderna already admitted American taxpayers financed 100 percent of this vaccine. Now the company has the gall to turn around and charge us the highest price of any vaccine maker.
“Asking the government to assume all risk for research, development, and production and then showing no restraint in pricing—that is the very definition of profiteering on a pandemic.”
In years gone by, the industry used to explain its high drug prices by talking up the cost and risks of research.
What is their excuse now that the public have shouldered that cost? That future drug research would be jeopardised if they don’t “maximise revenue” from the vaccine.
It’s the same argument they used in the past to stop factories in the Global South making cheap copies of their drugs in order to help people infected with HIV/Aids.
The result today will be the same as the past—poverty will lock billions of people in the Global South out of being vaccinated. And that, in turn, will mean coronavirus will continue to spread and remain a danger to humanity.
Nevertheless, the big drugs firms will look at the vaccines as a chance to repair their battered reputations.
The industry was found to be the most poorly regarded sector in the US last year, according to a Gallup survey—below even oil, gas and advertising.
Now the firms will present themselves, and the system they champion, as the saviours of humanity.
Their profiteering show the dangers of outsourcing the development of lifesaving drugs to companies primarily concerned with making money.
Pharmaceutical firms should be publicly owned and democratically controlled. Vaccines should be developed with public money, and given for free to everyone that needs them.
Throughout the pandemic Pfizer has been running adverts which declare, “Science Will Win”.
But it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that it’s Big Pharma that has once again walked away the winner—and that it’s poor and working class people who have paid out.
Remdesivir—paying millions for drug that doesn’t even work during the first wave of the virus last summer, US president Donald Trump boasted that he had bought the world’s entire supply of Remdesivir. This was a drug said to be crucial to recovery from Covid-19.
The anti-viral medication was developed by Gilead Sciences using US government funds and was now being sold to the same government at exorbitant rates.
A single vial of Remdesivir is priced at £391—around 50 times the cost of manufacture.
That, and the way the firm hides is intellectual property and profits in tax havens, ought to be a crime in itself.
But the bigger scandal is that there is little evidence that Remdesivir helps patients recover from Covid-19. Yet both US and European Union (EU) drug authorities have licenced the treatment and encouraged health services to buy it.
At best, one large study found Remdesivir modestly reduced the time to recover from Covid-19 in hospitalised patients with severe illness. Two smaller studies said the drug had no impact at all.
Then, just days after getting approval in the US and EU, came the forth and largest study.
Conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the trial showed that Remdesivir does not reduce mortality or the time patients take to recover from Covid-19.
The WHO conducted research in 405 hospitals in 30 countries. It was about three times as large as the previous three trials put together.
But with the deals done, as far as Gilead’s executives are concerned, the money is in the bank.
A journalist working on US medical finance was quick to reassure us that “Investors shouldn’t worry much about Gilead [which] expects full-year revenue will be between $23 billion [£17 billion] and $25 billion [£18 billion].…What’s the main reason for this optimism? Remdesivir.”
The Big Pharma big players
State funding to develop vaccine: £2,208,000,000
- Working on vaccines with the University of Oxford
- Best known for cancer and diabetes drugs
Scandals—In 2016, in the US, AstraZeneca paid £4.1 million in settlement of charges related to bribery and corruption.
It is also facing charges over its popular drug, Seroquel. It’s licensed to treat schizophrenia, but the company was marketing it to cover everything from anger management to dementia to sleeplessness.
State funding to develop vaccine: £874,000,000
- Working on multiple vaccines
- World’s largest producer of vaccines
Scandals—Earlier this year Sanofi was accused of “involuntary manslaughter” over the devastating effects of its epilepsy drug Depakine.
It is suspected of causing birth defects in thousands of children whose mothers took the medicine while pregnant.
State funding to develop vaccine: £837,000,000
- Working on multiple vaccines
- Produces drugs for diseases including asthma, cancer, diabetes and for mental health conditions
Scandals—Pleaded guilty in the US to charges relating to false claims for its anti-depressants Paxil and Wellbutrin.
Forced to pay out £2.2 billion in fines, the largest ever paid by a pharmaceutical company to the US government.
It was also fined for promoting Paxil as a treatment for depression in under-18s. The company arranged for doctors to go on all expenses paid trips to 5 star hotels as part of its marketing.
State funding to develop vaccine: £544,000,000
- Working on a vaccine with BioNTech
- Best known for Lipitor anti‑cholesterol drug, Pregabalin for relief of severe pain and Viagra for erectile disfunction
Scandals—In 1996 research for its experimental antibiotic Trovafloxacin led to 50 children in Nigeria to die while many others suffered deformities.
Information from WikiLeaks shows the company tried to find evidence of corruption against the Nigerian attorney general to persuade him to drop legal action against Pfizer.
In 2015, the company announced plans to move its headquarters to Ireland to avoid US taxes.
Johnson & Johnson
State funding to develop vaccine: £361,000,000
- Working on a single vaccine with subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals
- Subsidiary firms specialise in mental illness, neurology, gastrointestinal disorders and HIV/Aids
Scandals—Tens of thousands of women have taken legal action against Johnson & Johnson after suffering serious complications following a vaginal mesh implant.
Most complained that faulty medical devices sold by the firm were the cause, and that it had aggressively marketed its implants despite knowing the risks.
In 2007, the firm started legal action against the American Red Cross demanding the charity stop using the Red Cross symbol.