Pfizer, one of the richest drug companies in the world, is making hundreds of millions of pounds in profits from its Covid-19 vaccine.
The big pharma giant announced on Tuesday that its shots had brought in over £2.5 billion in revenue in the first three months of 2021.
That’s nearly a quarter of the company’s revenue.
Bosses did not disclose their profits from the vaccine, but their stated aim is to make well above 20 percent on each dose. That would translate into roughly £650 million in pre-tax profits in just the first quarter of the year.
While the company claims it is making a “vaccine for the world”, Pfizer’s money is being made overwhelmingly in the rich countries in the West.
More than 87 percent of its production of more than 700 million doses has gone to wealthy countries, while poor countries received only 0.2 percent.
The company pledged to contribute up to 40 million doses to Covax, a World Health Organisation partnership aimed at supplying vaccines to poor countries. But that represents less than 2 percent of the 2.5 billion doses that Pfizer aims to produce this year.
The vials that Pfizer pledged to Covax are “a drop in the ocean” says Clare Wenham, a health policy expert at the London School of Economics.
Pfizer bosses claim they are entitled to super profits because they did not accept money from the US government’s vaccine development project, known as Operation Slingshot. But the claim is a sleight of hand.
Pfizer’s development partner, BioNtech, received £320 million from a similar fund operated by the German government. And, despite its claims, Pfizer itself is part of Operation Slingshot.
The programme paid nearly £1.5 billion in advance for 100 million doses of its vaccine, long before the drug was licensed by US authorities.
Government funding gave Pfizer a leg up in other ways.
The firm’s vaccine is based on mRNA technology that delivers genetic information to our body’s own cells to produce a viral protein. These proteins then stimulate our immune systems to mount a response, without posing a risk of infection.
This technology took decades to produce and in the US was largely state funded at the National Institute of Health. Without it there would be no Pfizer vaccine.
Why a pharmaceutical giant such as Pfizer would need state aid to produce such a vital drug raises big questions about the relationship between the state and multinationals.
After all, Pfizer earned nearly £6.5 billion in profits last year, before the Covid-19 vaccine had any discernible impact on its results.
The answer lies in the way all the most powerful states wanted to be at the front of the queue for vaccinating its population. And they wanted firms based on their territory to bring home the expected big profits.
But the arrival of these hoped for profits now clearly clash with the desperate need to vaccinate the entire world at record speed.
Only production organised around that need—and no other—could meet that task.
And, in order to do it, patents, intellectual property rights and profits will all have to vanquished.