Big Pharma: saints or sinners?

Free-market ideologues claim that ‘Big Pharma’ has saved the day by its quick development of Covid vaccines. Luigi Hay examines the reality.

This is the second instalment of a two-part article. Part one can be read here.

Keywords: Pfizer BioNTech vaccine Big Pharma

The especially fast development of the recent Covid-19 vaccines has led some commentators to claim that this shows how wonderful ‘Big Pharma’ really is – and how much these firms deserve their bloated profits. Venture capitalist Bradley Tusk says, ‘The economic logic that drives up drug prices and fuels constant political outrage also makes rapid drug development possible’, partly due to them having the expertise and infrastructure needed, with high prices are justified to compensate for research on failed drugs. Journalist Tom Chivers claims that the profit motive makes drug companies drop a product that isn’t working, even if £100 million has already been spent, whereas government research would just continue to throw money down the rabbit hole.

These arguments have less to do with a real analysis of drug development than with the neoliberal ideological stereotypes that were peddled so aggressively by Thatcher, Major and Blair to justify the selling-off of state concerns at bargain basement prices. The same ideological formula brough us schemes like the Private Finance Initiative in the NHS, which has resulted in companies raking in profits on PFI-built hospitals for decades, and saddling the NHS with debts that amount to many times more than it would have cost to build the same facilities with public money. These commentators assume that the only possible world is the one we live in now, where the profit motive is taken for granted and, in the name of paring back ‘the state’, governments do not make public health a high priority, regardless of election promises.

Much has been made of firms’ claims that they will provide vaccines at non-profit rates (though this is sometimes presented with the caveat, ‘for the duration of the pandemic’ – with no clarity as to who will decide when the pandemic is over). But even if the pharmaceutical companies do initially provide the vaccine ‘not for profit’, there is still the question of those firms holding the international patents on the vaccines for 20 years. Essentially, the product can then only be made by concerns paying for the rights. Even after that period is up, pharmaceutical companies generally focus on ‘tweaking’ successful and profitable products to obtain a new 20-year patent for an old product.

Moreover, if the vaccines are not made globally, they will need to be distributed globally from a central production facility; obviously there are all kinds of issues which might arise in this scenario. In the past, South Africa and India have tried to get patents suspended so they can produce much needed drugs (e.g. for HIV) generically at a much lower cost; this has been met with outright hostility from the drug companies; and we can expect the same again over the vaccines.

Corporate-led vaccine development has also been presented as an example of beneficial ‘international cooperation’. However, this really only means cooperation between enterprises from different countries (for instance, Pfizer from the US and BioNTech from Germany), and there is still scant evidence of vaccine teams at competing companies sharing information for the same area of research – not with billions of pounds at stake. If public health were prioritised above the profits of multinationals, cooperation in research would be an absolute top priority, with teams of scientists openly sharing information to expedite the development of a vaccine as top priority.

We must genuinely hope that all of these vaccines live up to their phenomenal claims, and that we really do have a chance of living without fear of the coronavirus in the near future. Even so, the scientific precautionary principle suggests that more should be done to keep the virus under control over the coming months. Shutting all schools (except to the children of key-workers) and non-essential workplaces would be a good start to move towards a Zero Covid situation, something that most governments around the world are reluctant to seriously attempt.


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