“The reason we have the success of the vaccine is because of capitalism, for 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 this time he immediately tried to withdraw the comments.
The only relevant capitalist in the UK’s successful vaccine campaign is Kate Bingham, who took time out of her job as a managing partner at SV Health Investors to manage the country’s acquisitions program.
The UK’s main Covid-19 vaccine was not developed by Big Pharma but by the University of Oxford, whose motive was to save as many lives as possible. Determined to find a manufacturing partner willing to help them distribute a low-cost vaccine around the world, the Oxford team struck a deal with AstraZeneca. The Anglo-Swedish company, as Johnson was quick to acknowledge, agreed to supply the vaccine on a non-profit basis for the duration of the pandemic.
So far, not a lot of greed. But the UK is the exception. The profit motive is alive and well in the development of the Covid-19 vaccine and does not appear to have caused any harm to its followers.
Despite its non-profit commitment, AstraZeneca is the scapegoat of the vaccine world outside the UK, thanks to delivery failures in the EU and data failures in the US.
Among the other companies that took the nonprofit route, Johnson & Johnson has been slowest to roll out, while GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi completely failed in their initial efforts.
The golden children are Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech, who take home not only applause but also large amounts of cash. For-profit companies have developed the most effective vaccines, using innovative technology that opens up the possibility of vaccines for other diseases, including cancer.
Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, the husband and wife team who founded BioNTech in Germany and produced an incredibly effective mRNA vaccine, have focused a lot on something warm and fuzzy. Less attention is paid to the fact that they are capitalists. Since the founding of the company in 2008, they have accumulated losses every year. Investors ignored that and the twisted risk factors – “No mRNA immunotherapy has been approved, and may never be approved, in this potential new category of therapies” – and independently funded the company.
American rivals Moderna and Novavax were also able to withstand years of losses thanks to investors who were greedy in the long run and are now waiting to be fed.
Making a profit does not mean making a profit. Moderna and Pfizer, which makes the BioNTech vaccine, have made it clear that they are being sold at an artificially low “pandemic price.”
However, Pfizer executive Frank D’Amelio hopes that will change when the pandemic ends. “Normal market forces. . . it will start to take effect, ”he said at a conference this month. “And factors like efficacy, booster ability, clinical utility will be basically very important, and we see it, frankly, as a significant opportunity for our vaccine from a demand perspective, from a pricing perspective.” In other words, Pfizer and Moderna believe their for-profit vaccines are superior and will allow them to earn more.
For now, there is little reaction, although a campaign group called the People’s Vaccine Alliance warned that “the current system, where pharmaceutical corporations use government funds for research, retain exclusive rights and keep their technology secret to increase profits, could cost many lives. “
In Germany, activists have urged employees to “filter the vaccine.” The protests have taken place in front of the BioNTech headquarters on a street in Mainz called An der Goldgrube: “In the gold mine”.