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 3 - The Art of Intellectual Property
The monopolies that Pfizer enjoys are hardwired into the rules of the global economy. In the 1980s a handful of corporations, led by a former Pfizer chief executive, recognized that their most important assets were not their factories, their workforces, or even their research base. Rather it was the intellectual property that they sat on — the patents, the know-how, the trademarks. They set about persuading the US government to ensure this intellectual property was as well protected as possible, and in the mid-1990s US-style patents laws were embedded in the newly formed World Trade Organization as a global minimum, undermining the sort of sharing, copying, and imitation of technology that had allowed countries like South Korea to go from poverty to an advanced economy in a generation.
High protection for intellectual property was supposed to encourage innovation and reward the risky business of researching medical breakthroughs. It has had quite the opposite effect. Rather, Big Pharma companies slashed their research and development budgets and focused on buying up research, much of it publicly created, so they could sit on the intellectual property attached to it for decades. A STAT analysis in 2018 concluded that Pfizer developed only a fraction — about 23 percent — of its drugs in-house. Even the research these companies do undertake is often taken up in trying to prolong the lifetime of patents, by making insignificant changes to drugs they already own.
In this way, these firms have become more like hedge funds than research facilities, committed to squeezing every last drop of profit out of their intellectual property. This is great news for Pfizer’s superrich investors.
Last week the company proudly announced that during just the first three months of 2022, it has returned $4.2 billion directly to shareholders. Between 2016 and 2020, the figure was around $70 billion — far exceeding the company’s research budget and even exceeding its net income. Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, boasted that Pfizer was the “most efficient machine to convert raw materials to doses.” It would be more accurate to describe the company as the most efficient machine for converting public resources into shareholder wealth.