Jacobin - April 30, 2021

Big Pharma’s monopoly over vaccines, of course, is something more than symbolic. Companies are currently hoarding their patents, refusing to share expertise and information that could dramatically expedite the production and distribution of doses to those who need them — even as people die, untold millions anxiously await a return to normalcy, and extra manufacturing capacity sits idle. Whatever noxious spin their PR departments and apologists may spew to the contrary, the reason is plain and simple corporate greed: Western pharma giants standing to lose unimaginable profits if patents are universalized and made available to anyone with the resources and know-how to manufacture vaccines. As science writer Stephen Buranyi recently put it:

There will be no “People’s Vaccine” emerging from any of these firms. It isn’t that the coronavirus vaccines are especially valuable. They are a big bump for a few firms: Pfizer predicts it will take in an extra $15bn this year, but its 2019 revenue was already a healthy $52bn. It’s that the system itself is too valuable. The principle of locking out low-cost competition is just too precious to compromise. Even for coronavirus.

The upshot, as Buranyi reported last weekend, is that far too few vaccines are being produced and roughly half of the 430 million manufactured this year have gone to the wealthiest 16 percent of the world’s population (many poorer nations are not expected to achieve effective vaccination levels for at least another two years).

Spurred by their insatiable hunger for profit and enabled by governments captive to their vast lobbying operations, a handful of pharmaceutical companies have been allowed to monopolize both the vaccine market and the popular narrative around the pandemic itself: deceptively reframing primal self-interest as compassion and private industry as public messiah. It would be unethical even if the R&D departments at each company had single-handedly innovated their way to the invention of a vaccine; given the critical role both public money and publicly funded scientific research played at every stage of vaccine development, it’s nothing short of immoral. ...
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