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Big Pharma is still making absurd profits off of the pandemic

Pfizer is projected to rake in more than $50 billion from its COVID medicines this year. It’s a symbol of the drastic inequality created by a for-profit approach to global health.
by Nick Dearden 
Part 2 - Pandemic Profits
It’s easy to see where Pfizer’s profits come from. Pfizer claims that the cost price of its vaccine is just under £5 per dose, though experts say doses could be made for as little as 76p. Either way, the UK government paid £18 a shot for its first order, £22 for later purchases. Even taking Pfizer at its word, that would mean the National Health Service (NHS) has paid a markup of at least £2 billion — six times the cost of the pay rise the government agreed to give nurses last year. Even this price seems rather reasonable compared to the amount it has been claimed Pfizer tried to charge the US government: an eye-watering $100 a dose, prompting a former US disease prevention official to accuse the firm of “war profiteering.

Pfizer prides itself on having taken no government money for its vaccine, claiming it plowed its own money into the vaccine’s development. But significant funding for this vaccine did come from the public sector.

Like all mRNA vaccines, Pfizer’s medicine was built on decades of public research. If credit for this particular vaccine goes to any company, it is Pfizer’s partner, BioNTech, a spin-off from a German university center, which was given substantial public funding. Pfizer did put its own money into producing the drug — probably up to $1 billion — but also received guaranteed government contracts of nearly $2 billion in sales for the United States alone. At most, Pfizer’s investment was a small part of the picture and is miniscule compared to the return the corporation has seen. A former US government official bemoaned “it’s not even their vaccine” and describes the fact it’s universally known as the “Pfizer” jab as “the biggest marketing coup in the history of American pharmaceuticals.

Unfortunately, though, this vaccine is legally Pfizer’s vaccine. Like virtually all important medicines, it was built on public knowledge, but that knowledge was then privatized — handed over to a multinational corporation that can then dictate who can make it, how much it will cost, and who can buy it. Unsurprisingly, Pfizer sold the vast majority of its doses to rich countries and a mere 1.3 percent of its supply to COVAX, the global body set up to try to ensure a more equitable distribution of COVID-19 medicines.

That’s not the worst of it. Pfizer’s monopoly power has prevented others producing, rationing supply purely so they could maintain control of the lifesaving technology. It’s been calculated that over 100 factories and laboratories around the world could have been producing mRNA vaccines if only the technology was shared. But Pfizer has taken a lead in undermining any attempt to share know-how, denouncing a United Nations initiative to pool patents as “nonsense” and “dangerous.

Even after it had made a fortune, Pfizer refused to share its vaccine with a World Health Organization–backed laboratory in South Africa set up specifically to help lower-income countries build their vaccine capacity. The resulting inequality, shocking in itself, has also given the virus the best possible chance to spread and mutate, potentially undermining the vaccines we’ve got. But what does that matter to Pfizer when in the week after the Omicron variant was discovered, a small handful of their top shareholders added billions of dollars to their wealth as its share price boomed at the prospect of selling even more vaccines.


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