It was a huge mistake to put big pharma in charge of global vaccine roll-out.

Covid made it abundantly clear: Pfizer and its shareholders are only interested in their enormous profits.

Pfizer has experienced an exceptional pandemic. lt announced its Covid-19 vaccine generated $37bn in revenue last year, making this the most profitable medicine in all of history.

This is not all. Covid-19 was a PR coup for a company that was the least trusted company within the least trusted industry sector in the United States. Over the past 12 months, Pfizer has been a household name. Pfizer was celebrated at nightclubs in Tel Aviv. There are cocktails named for its vaccine that can be found in bars around the globe. President Donald Trump referred to Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive as a ” friend” and parked his plane next to Boris Johnson’s at the G7 summit in Cornwall last year.

Global vaccine rollout has led to levels of inequality that many refer to as a “vaccine apartheid”. This rollout was led by pharmaceutical corporations such as Pfizer, who set the terms and decide who to prioritize. Their approach ultimately affects who gets vaccines and who doesn’t.

Pfizer made it clear from the beginning that it wanted to make lots of money with Covid. According to Pfizer, its vaccine is priced at less than £5 per dose. Other people have suggested that it might be cheaper. The company is making a lot of money selling doses – the UK government paid £18 for its first order and £22 for its latest purchase. This means that the NHS paid a markup of at most £2bn, six times the price of the pay increase the government promised nurses last year.

It was claimed when the company tried to pitch its medicine to the US government at an eye-popping $100 per dose. Former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tom Frieden accused the company of “war profiteering”.

Pfizer has sold most of its vaccines to the wealthiest countries around the globe, a strategy that will ensure it continues to make huge profits. Looking at the global distribution of Pfizer’s vaccines, you will see that only a small percentage is sold to low-income countries. Last October, Pfizer had shipped just 1.3% from its supply to Covax (an international body that aims to improve access to vaccines).

Pfizer didn’t sell many doses of the vaccine to countries that were less fortunate, but it would allow them to license or share patents so they could make the life-saving vaccine.

This is because the Pfizer model has a set of intellectual property rules that are established in trade agreements. These rules allow large pharma companies to operate as monopolies and have no obligation to share the knowledge that they own with society, however important.

The World Health Organization (WHO), early on, recognized that production would have to be scaled up quickly and that corporations such as Pfizer wouldn’t have enough capacity. They encouraged companies to share their vaccine recipes and created a “patent pool” called CTAP. This would have allowed for openness and collaboration. They would have paid the companies, but they couldn’t restrict production.

This type of suspension of business rules in times of great need is not new. It was common with penicillin during World War II or sharing smallpox vaccination knowledge during the 1960s.

In this instance, however, Pfizer’s chief took offence to CTAP, calling it “nonsense” and saying that it was dangerous to share intellectual property. There has been evidence that 100 laboratories all over the world could have made vaccines but were unable to access patents or recipes similar to those held by Pfizer.

Pfizer made a similar statement about the South African facility to study mRNA vaccines. This will allow it to share its revolutionary medical technology with the rest of the world. Moderna and Pfizer will not share their knowledge so the scientists had to create their own. News last week suggested they are getting there. This contradicts the claims of the pharmaceutical industry that you can’t make such an effective vaccine in less developed countries.

Many will argue that although large pharma companies behave badly, it is important to accept their service of inventing lifesaving drugs. This is not true. Pfizer and other companies behave more like hedge funds by buying up and controlling intellectual property and other businesses, as opposed to traditional medical research firms.

They are not the only inventors of the vaccine, but they do have a role. This was the result of university research, public money, and BioNTech, a smaller company from Germany. One ex-US government official complained that the fact that we call it the “Pfizer” vaccine, is “the greatest marketing coup in American pharmaceuticals history”.

In 2018, a Stat news analysis found that only 23% of Pfizer’s drugs were developed in-house. A US Government Accountability Office report from the previous year found that the industry model is to increasingly buy smaller companies that have already created products. They can monopolize that knowledge and maximize the price of the resulting drugs. Pfizer has funnelled $70bn (£52bn), directly to its shareholders through dividend payments and stock buybacks. This is more than the amount it has allocated to research for the same period.

Humira was the most profitable drug in the world in 2018. It treats autoimmune diseases and generated AbbVie $20bn. Humira was examined by a US congressional panel. It is an example of how large pharma companies operate today: Buy a drug that has been already invented, patent it, and raise the price 470% over its life.

Pfizer and other corporations should not have been given the responsibility of overseeing a global vaccine rollout. It was obvious that they would make short-term decisions in their shareholders’ best interests. We must end the monopolies that have given these financialised beasts so much power and invest in new networks of medical factories and research institutes around the globe that can actually serve our public.

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