The pharmaceutical industry has long made exorbitant profits by free-riding on research carried out by the public sector
Hooray for Pfizer! As news of a vaccine potentially offering 90% protection against Covid-19 offers a life raft for lockdown-weary humanity, perhaps those home-drawn posters on people’s windows thanking the NHS will soon be applauding big pharma instead.
The hope of a successful vaccine to liberate us from protracted economic misery should be embraced – but we should be sparing with the bunting for the pharmaceutical industry. If you want a particularly egregious case study of “socialism for the rich”, or of private businesses dependent on public sector research and innovation to make colossal profits, look no further than big pharma.
Pfizer and its German biotech partner, BioNTech, stand to make an astonishing £9.8bn next year from a coronavirus vaccine. Suggestions that pharmaceutical companies should not profit from the world’s most severe crisis since the second world war were dismissed in July as “radical” by Pfizer’s CEO; and, perhaps, many will overlook such profiteering amidst the wave of gratitude. But Pfizer’s claim to “have never taken any money from the US government, or from anyone” does not stand up to scrutiny: big pharma is reliant on public-sector munificence.
The Pfizer/BioNTech experimental vaccine itself uses a spike protein technology reportedly developed by the US government: without the state, this vaccine would probably not have been developed so speedily. While nearly 10,000 human lives are lost across the world each day to the pandemic, Pfizer’s CEO cashing in on the vaccine news by selling $5.6m in shares should cause more than discomfort. (A spokesperson told Axios that “the sale was part of a predetermined plan created in August”.)
“Essentially, pharmaceutical companies are global monopolies, which are given the right to charge whatever the market is willing to tolerate for the new medicines they produce,” says Nick Dearden of Global Justice Now, which is calling for patents on the Pfizer vaccine to be suspended. Patents award them exclusive rights to make and sell their drugs for 20 years, preventing the supply of cheaper, generic versions. Here is a sector not driven by curing illness but rather by shareholder profits: for example, recent research found that revenue from soaring insulin prices has been splashed on shareholders rather than research and development. When startup companies spring up developing innovative new drugs, big pharma buys them up and even shuts down the development of such novel treatments in order to stifle competition.
Take two particularly horrifying examples of this broken pharmaceutical industry. While millions of Africans were dying in the HIV/Aids pandemic, big pharma attempted to block cash-strapped governments importing cheaper versions of life-saving drugs. Here’s another: the rise of infections resistant to antibiotics is an emergency perhaps even comparable to the climate crisis. Yet pharmaceutical companies have failed to invest in developing new drugs – shockingly, there has been no new class of antibiotic developed for nearly four decades – because it simply isn’t profitable. This colossal failure led the government’s former “superbug tsar” Jim O’Neill to suggest nationalised drug companies might be the only answer.
“We need to respond to Covid with cooperation, solidarity, and equity,” Diarmaid McDonald of Just Treatment, which is campaigning against secret deals between government and big pharma on any vaccines, tells me. “But the big-pharma model is the antithesis of this: it’s about closed business models, which are focused on competitive efforts done in isolation not to provide the best outcomes to all, but the highest possible profits to the company.”
In response to the early-2000s pandemic caused by Sars – also a coronavirus – governments committed to increasing investment in research, helping to develop promising vaccine candidates, which could have been used against Covid-19. But pharmaceutical companies abandoned the research. Why? Because it was unlikely to be immediately profitable. It gets worse: major pharmaceutical companies blocked an EU proposal in 2017 to fast-track vaccines for pathogens such as coronavirus.
Here’s some basic common sense. Last month, the Indian and South African governments asked the World Trade Organization to give countries the power to neither grant nor enforce patents linked to Covid-19 drugs and vaccines until global immunity is achieved. This week, they were backed up by leading UN human rights experts who called on governments to ensure universal access to a vaccine. But such proposals are being blocked, while a small number of rich countries have struck deals for more than a billion doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, leaving less than a quarter of what is planned to be produced for the rest of the world.
Rather than being a PR triumph for big pharma, coronavirus should serve as a reminder of the disastrous consequences of leaving a life-saving industry in the hands of a profiteering monopoly. Britain has it better than most countries: the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has considerable leverage over pharmaceutical companies by being able to judge whether their drugs are value for money for the NHS. But, while the US pays on average nearly four times more for drugs than other countries, everybody is being ripped off.
With a successful vaccine, herd immunity could be possible without resulting in millions more dead. This is a global catastrophe, after all: up to 150 million more people will be driven into extreme poverty by next year as a consequence of the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands have died, from New Delhi to Rio de Janeiro, while entire economies have been ravaged. But a pharmaceutical industry that has long made exorbitant profits by free-riding on public-sector research has been granted its most lucrative money-spinner yet. So yes, rejoice that a vaccine may well be coming, but don’t give kudos to a pharmaceutical industry that is as dysfunctional as it is morally bankrupt.