VILLAINS OR SAVIOURS?
The development of COVID-19 vaccines is a public relations coup for the pharmaceutical industry. The arrival of vaccines has boosted public approval for drug companies. Thanks to the blanket press coverage of the global race to develop vaccines, “big pharma” brands like Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca have become household names.
The long-beleaguered drug manufacturing sector has become the hero of the hour. COVID-19 has provided the sector with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset its abysmal reputation. Less than two years ago, there was no business sector in the US as disliked as the pharmaceutical industry, according to a 2019 Gallup Poll.
By providing the world with the ability to curb transmission of the virus, generations of ill will towards the industry seems to be melting away. Drug makers are currently basking in global plaudits – but will the adulation last? Will 2021 be a permanent reputational turning point or will past disreputable behaviour (such as price gouging and the US opioid crisis) be repeated?
One health expert has argued that we should not be under any illusion that profit, not altruism, motivated drug companies to develop COVID-19 vaccines. While no one knows precisely the extent to which these companies will profit from making vaccines, they are expected to collectively generate tens of billions of dollars in sales for the pharmaceutical industry.
Richer nations have gobbled up the majority of the global supply of vaccines, with poorer nations falling behind in the race for inoculations. This “me-first approach” is precisely the behaviour that the World Health Organisation feared and predicted. WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated that “the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure”.
In January, Dr Ghebreyesus criticised inequalities in the global coronavirus vaccine rollout, arguing that it was “not right” that younger adults in wealthy countries were getting vaccinated before older people or healthcare workers in poorer countries. He also hit out at the profiteering of drug companies, accusing vaccine makers of targeting locations where “profits are highest”.
Other experts have also expressed concern about vaccine nationalism and support Dr Ghebreyesus’ call for countries and manufacturers to spread doses more fairly around the world. Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Centre in Geneva stated: “Richer countries will be able to vaccinate … their whole populations before vulnerable groups in many developing countries get covered”.
The WHO has urged countries and manufacturers to stop making bilateral deals. Such agreements have resulted in vaccine makers prioritising regulatory approvals in rich countries where the profits are the highest, rather than submitting their data to the WHO for approval. “No country is exceptional and should cut the queue and vaccinate all their population while some remain with no supply of the vaccine,” said Dr Ghebreyesus.
According to an opinion piece in the New York Times, drug companies will “make a killing” from the coronavirus. While other sectors of the business world have struggled to survive the mayhem from the pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry is set to profit handsomely. Sales of treatments and vaccines will pad bottom lines and this is expected to create a windfall for the industry.
But drug companies are not the only profiteers. A December 2020 article in the Los Angeles Times reported that executives at some pharmaceutical companies received huge paydays by selling shares around the time their companies announced positive news about coronavirus vaccines. This practice is common in the healthcare industry with executives using prearranged stock sale plans to unload shares on days when their companies release good news.
Pre-planned stock trades are not illegal and can be very lucrative. According to the Los Angeles Times article:
Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla shed 60% of his holdings in the company Nov. 9, the same day his firm announced the results of trials that showed its vaccine was highly effective in preventing the disease caused by the coronavirus. The news caused the company’s stock to jump 15%. Bourla is one of seven Pfizer executives who collectively have earned $14 million from stock sales this year …. That amount is dwarfed by sales made by executives at Moderna, a Cambridge, Mass.-based firm that has never brought a product to market but has produced a vaccine reported to be nearly as effective as Pfizer’s. Executives there collectively made $287 million from stock sales this year …. Moderna’s CEO, Stéphane Bancel, has accounted for $81 million of the sales ….
The public has largely bankrolled the hunt for COVID-19 vaccines. Yet, even though taxpayers have footed the bill for much of the research and development, we have no say in how vaccines are priced and distributed. This is at the sole discretion of pharmaceutical companies which will use government granted legal monopolies – in the form of patents – to charge whatever price they wish.
Allowing drug makers to get rich from a global health emergency does not sit well with the average citizen. As we Aussies like to say, this arrangement fails the pub test. Patents should not come before patients. Picking up on this theme, Owen Jones, a columnist for The Guardian (UK), published an opinion piece, The Covid vaccine will benefit humanity – we should all own the patent, wherein he stated:
Pfizer and its German biotech partner, BioNTech, stand to make an astonishing £9.8bn (in 2021) 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 (2020) as “radical” by Pfizer’s CEO …. But Pfizer’s claim to “have never taken any money from the US government or from anyone” does not stand up to scrutiny. … 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.
Many believe that the current drug development model is broken as it does not deliver affordable drugs to the masses. This is exactly what happened when a treatment for HIV infection was developed over two decades ago. The drug was expensive at a whopping US$15,000 – per person per year – making it completely unaffordable to people in Africa. While AIDS sufferers in the West were able to afford the breakthrough treatment, millions needlessly died in Africa from the AIDS epidemic. The drug company blocked access to a low-cost generic AIDS medication to protect its investment.
Another fundamental flaw of the medicine patent scheme is that it motivates innovation only if potential patent-holders believe that they can make a substantive return on their investment. From a shareholder perspective, this is fair and understandable, but not always in the best interests of society. An example is the 2018 decision by pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, to cease research on a treatment for dementia as it did not stack-up financially.
This dashed the hopes of millions suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and those at risk of developing one of these devastating diseases. The need to generate value for shareholders saw Pfizer re-allocate R&D funding to other areas. But this was cold comfort to patients and their families affected by neurological diseases.
Not surprisingly, there have been calls for future coronavirus vaccines to be treated as global public goods with equal access for all, without profit. We have a golden opportunity to reshape the biomedical research and development system in a way that prioritizes people over profits. The belief that monopolies and high prices are a “necessary evil” in financing the development of new medicines needs to be challenged.
The current medicine patent system is flawed and governments must do more of the heavy lifting regarding financing research into new drugs. This might be a bitter pill for drug companies to swallow, but a welcome tonic for the masses. With research costs paid upfront by governments, most drugs would be available for the same price as a bottle of generic aspirin.
I’ll leave the final word on this contentious topic to The Guardian’s Owen Jones: “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.”
Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect a leopard to change its spots.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer