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Vaccination Mexico

A nurse vaccinates a person at the Covid-19 inoculation center at Centro Cultural Jaime Torres Bodet in Mexico City on July 27, 2021. (Photo: Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)

Big Pharma Monopolies Make Cost of Global Vaccination Against Covid-19 5 Times Costlier Than Needed: Report

"This is perhaps one of the most lethal cases of profiteering in history."

Brett Wilkins

Pharmaceutical corporations' vaccine monopolies are increasing the cost of inoculating the world's population against Covid-19 by as much as 500%, a briefing paper published Thursday revealed, underscoring what public health advocates say is the need for a People's Vaccine.

"Immediate action must be taken now to deliver a People's Vaccine... with access prioritized according to need and not ability to pay."
—The People's Vaccine Alliance

The paper, authored by the People's Vaccine Alliance and entitled The Great Vaccine Robbery (pdf), shows that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are charging governments as much as $41 billion more for their vaccines than the cost of production. Colombia, for example, has been paying twice as much as the United States for Moderna vaccines, and the country has potentially been overcharged by as much as $375 million for Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech doses combined.

The report's authors analyzed how mRNA-type vaccines like those sold by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech are made. The vaccines, which were created with the help of billions of dollars in public funding, could be produced as cheaply as $1.20 per dose. However, COVAX—the global initiative co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the World Health Organization (WHO); and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI)—has been paying an average of nearly 500% more.

Furthermore, the publication notes that Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have so far sold 90% of their vaccines to wealthy nations, which are paying up to 24 times more than production costs.

According to the analysis:

At the heart of today's stark, unacceptable, and unnecessary Covid-19 vaccine inequality is the world's collective dependence on a handful of pharmaceutical corporations who hold the power to decide how many vaccines get made, who gets them, and at what price. While companies make billions in revenue and profits as Covid-19 vaccines fast become some of the bestselling pharmaceutical products in human history, less than 1% of people in low-income countries have had a vaccine.

Covid-19 infection and death rates are surging in developing countries with too few health workers and without the oxygen to save lives. Yet a handful of rich country governments continue to refuse to insist that pharmaceutical corporations share vaccine technology and know-how, free of intellectual property rights, with other capable manufacturers—a move that would rapidly expand the supply of lower cost vaccines and prevent unnecessary mass loss of life.

Among major rich country leaders, only U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron have so far voiced support for a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO), a proposal by India and South Africa that would temporarily lift patent protections to allow more countries to produce vaccines. Other wealthy nations including Canada, Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom continue to oppose the TRIPS waiver.

Critics also note that even though Biden has spoken in favor of the waiver, the U.S. government has not publicly gone further than announcing its support. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, however, said Tuesday she's still engaged with other WTO members on the proposed intellectual protections waiver.

Public health experts reacted to the report with renewed calls for a People's Vaccine. Joel Bassuk, communications consultant at UNAIDS, tweeted that it's "awful how vaccine monopolies are costing lives. Daily."

Bassuk called the paper "a reminder of when millions of people were dying of HIV in developing countries because the medicines that could save them were priced too high."

"We need a #PeoplesVaccine," he said.

"It's time to stop subsidizing corporate fat cats. It's time to put people before profits."
—Maaza Seyoum,
People's Vaccine Alliance

Maaza Seyoum, African coordinator of the People's Vaccine Alliance, said in a statement that "as long as the pharmaceutical corporations retain their monopolies on the lifesaving technology, they will always prioritize contracts where they can make the most excessive profits, leaving developing countries out in the cold."

"With government budgets in crisis the world over, and Covid cases rising in many developing countries, it's time to stop subsidizing corporate fat cats," Seyoum added. "It's time to put people before profits."

Oxfam—which hosts the People's Vaccine Alliance website—said in a press release that "without pharmaceutical monopolies on vaccines restricting supply and driving up prices... the money spent by COVAX to date could have been enough to fully vaccinate every person in low- and middle-income countries with cost-price vaccines, if there was enough supply. Instead, at best, COVAX will vaccinate 23% by end of 2021."

Anna Marriott, health policy manager at Oxfam, said that "pharmaceutical companies are holding the world to ransom at a time of unprecedented global crisis. This is perhaps one of the most lethal cases of profiteering in history."

"Precious budgets that could be used for building more health facilities in poorer countries are instead being raided by CEOs and shareholders of these all-powerful corporations," added Marriott.

The briefing paper concludes that "as infection and death rates rise in parts of the world least able to access vaccines it is incumbent on governments to not only learn from the mistakes of the last 18 months, but to learn from the successes of the last two decades."

"Immediate action must be taken now," the report adds, "to deliver a People's Vaccine—vaccines that are universally available as soon as possible, free of charge, with access prioritized according to need and not ability to pay."


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