Vaccines required investors who were long-term greedy

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“The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends,” Boris Johnson to MPs this week.

It would be redundant to accuse the UK prime minister of being careless with the facts to make a rhetorical point. The surprise is that on this occasion he immediately tried to withdraw the comments.

The only relevant capitalist in the UK’s successful vaccine drive is Kate Bingham, who took time out from her job as managing partner at SV Health Investors to run the country’s procurement programme.

The UK’s main Covid-19 vaccine was developed not by Big Pharma but by Oxford university, whose motive was saving as many lives as possible. Determined to find a manufacturing partner willing to help them distribute a low-cost vaccine to the world, the Oxford team struck a deal with AstraZeneca. The Anglo-Swedish company, as Johnson quickly conceded, has agreed to supply the vaccine on a non-profit basis for the duration of the pandemic.

So far, not much greed. But the UK is the exception. The profit motive is alive and well in Covid-19 vaccine development and does not seem to have done its adherents any harm at all. 

Despite its not-for-profit commitment, AstraZeneca is the whipping boy of the vaccine world outside the UK, thanks to delivery failures in the EU and data flubs in the US.

Among the other companies taking the not-for-profit route, Johnson & Johnson has been slower to rollout, while GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi failed completely with their initial efforts.

The golden children are Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech, which are taking home not only plaudits but bundles of cash. The profit-seeking companies have developed the most effective vaccines, using groundbreaking technology that opens up the prospect of vaccines for other diseases including cancers. 

A lot of warm-and-fuzzy focus has gone to Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, the husband-and-wife team who founded BioNTech in Germany and went on to produce a stunningly effective mRNA vaccine. Less attention is paid to the fact that they are capitalists. Since founding the company in 2008, they have racked up losses every year. Investors stomached that and gnarly risk factors — “No mRNA immunotherapy has been approved, and none may ever be approved, in this new potential category of therapeutics” — and funded the company regardless. 

US rivals Moderna and Novavax were also able to endure years of losses thanks to investors who were long-term greedy and now expect to be fed.

Making a profit does not mean profiteering. Moderna and Pfizer, which manufactures the BioNTech vaccine, have been very clear that they are selling at artificially low “pandemic pricing”.

However, Pfizer executive Frank D’Amelio is looking forward to that changing when the pandemic ends. “Normal market forces . . . will start to kick in,” he told a conference this month. “And factors like efficacy, booster ability, clinical utility will basically become very important, and we view that as, quite frankly, a significant opportunity for our vaccine from a demand perspective, from a pricing perspective.” In other words, Pfizer and Moderna think their profit-propelled vaccines are superior and will earn them more.

For now, there is little backlash, though a campaign group called the People’s Vaccine Alliance has warned that “The current system, where pharmaceutical corporations use government funding for research, retain exclusive rights and keep their technology secret to boost profits, could cost many lives.”

In Germany, activists have urged employees to “Leak the vaccine”. The protests have taken place outside BioNTech’s headquarters on a street in Mainz called An der Goldgrube: “At the goldmine”.

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