Who doesn’t like a race? A grand global race, like the competition to run the first mile under four minutes. Or the race to scale the world’s highest mountain. Or be the first to walk on the moon.
Now we find ourselves in a race of much greater import: the dash to develop an effective vaccine for COVID-19. The world now watches with that fabled bated breath. Pfizer, a Big Pharma behemoth, is running neck-in-neck with Moderna, a lavishly funded corporate upstart.
Pfizer, first to announce trial results, reports 90 percent effectiveness rates for its pandemic-stopper. Moderna, not to be outdone, reports 95 percent success rates. We actually hit that brass ring, too, retorts Pfizer. And ours even works with older people!
What a race! How exciting! More to the point: How lucrative!
This race is minting billionaires. The founder of Pfizer’s partner company, BioNTech, achieved billionaire status earlier this year. Earlier this month, that founder and his two top investors saw their personal fortunes leap a combined $2 billion. At Moderna, three top players, including the CEO Stéphane Bancel, have become billionaires so far this year.
Various other pharmaceutical industry movers and shakers—like the hedge fund behind Vaxart, a San Francisco concern—have made hundreds of millions.
“Every day, Americans wake up and make sacrifices during this pandemic,” says Ben Wakana, the executive director at Patients for Affordable Drugs. “Drug companies see this as a payday.”
The headlines that trumpet coronavirus boondoggles have become, in effect, the rain on our yes-we-now-have-a-vaccine! parade. How could some be making billions off the horror that’s killing millions?
The biggest tragedy of all: Things don’t have to be this way. Over a half-century ago, we conquered polio, and no one became fabulously rich in the process. We could have done the same with COVID-19.
We could have brought the world’s nations all together, funneled resources into multiple beat-corona approaches, and pledged to share—with researchers everywhere—the latest medical breakthroughs in real-time. The Trump crew had no interest in that approach, and Democrats in Congress made no big push for an alternative. A lost opportunity.
“The Trump administration opted to pursue a route of patent monopoly research, as opposed to open-source collaborative research,” explains Center for Economic and Policy Research economist Dean Baker. “Instead of paying for the research costs of a company like Moderna, and then telling them they could get a patent monopoly so that they could charge whatever they want, we could have made the condition of the funding that all its findings would be fully public and patents would be in the public domain.”
With patents for COVID-19 vaccines under private control, adds Global Justice Now policy advisor Heidi Chow, Big Pharma’s power players get to decide “who gets the vaccine and at what price.”
And so we now have some promising vaccines but no global gameplan for assuring every person on Earth ready and timely access to a future sans COVID. Millions more of us will suffer while a fortunate few of us make multiple billions. We can do better, and advocacy groups like Global Justice Now are organizing to make that better happen.
Some 78 percent of Moderna’s vaccine doses, Global Justice Now points out, has already been sold to rich nations with only 12 percent of the world’s population.
“In this global health emergency, vaccines should be available to all, everywhere, free of charge,” says a new Global Justice Now campaign for COVID-19 justice. “Manufacturers should be working together to produce enough doses for everyone, distributed in order of need. And companies and governments should be cooperating through the World Health Organization to make this happen.”
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Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest book, The Case for a Maximum Wage, has just been published. Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.