Vaccine profits: Why big pharma is defending patents amid pandemic

New DelhiEdited By: Gravitas deskUpdated: May 06, 2021, 11:08 AM IST


Story highlights

Pfizer revealed its revenue projections today. They are expecting $26 billion from vaccine sales in 2021. That's a profit of more than $3 per share

Vaccines are the only way out of the pandemic. However, vaccine making has become exclusive - almost like a cartel.

Cartels work ruthlessly, just like big pharma. The pharma companies are still clinging on to patents and putting profits above human lives.

It is time for governments to step in and dictate big pharma. India and South Africa took the lead in October last year. They pushed for a patent waiver at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). However as expected, the West pushed back.

Now, a lot depends on US President Joe Biden, if the United States changes position, then the West will follow.

Biden, during the campaign trail last year, had promised to waive patents.


There is no scope for interpretation as Biden had said a patent waiver was the most humane thing to do. But as president, he has backed patents although more than 100 US Congress members have asked the US president to waive patents.

The US trade office is apparently holding talks with some stakeholders - Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and, of all people Bill Gates, the man who has openly rubbished patent waivers.

Also pushing back is the US chamber of commerce. They have called the idea of a patent waiver a mistaken belief. These are the people Biden has been consulting on whether patents should be waived: big pharma and patent darlings.

It is possible that he decides to support the waiver anyway but the damage has already been done. Vaccine production has been set back by months even if patents are waived now and it's a big if, it is a long road ahead.

One way out is reverse engineering, meaning you break down the formula and create the vaccine from scratch. Then conduct clinical trials. A patent waiver is not sharing the formula, it just means allowing a copy of the formula, which takes time.

Biden's delay may have doomed the developing world but let's not lose sight of the real villain - big pharma who have always defended patents. And pandemic or not, their arguments never change.

There are two main ones: firstly, patents boost innovation, and secondly voluntary sharing is a better option. 

During the pandemic, big pharma had a big cushion, an insurance of sorts in the form of public funding.

The US, while launching Operation Warpspeed, poured $18 billion of the taxpayer's money into pharma companies. In the UK, they got nearly $116 million, with most of it going to Oxford and AstraZeneca.

Overall, $112 billion of public money went into vaccine research in the pandemic, However, once the vaccines were ready, big pharma locked away the formula.

Pfizer revealed its revenue projections today. They are expecting $26 billion from vaccine sales in 2021. That's a profit of more than $3 per share.

Moderna had never turned a profit in its history, but this year they could rake in up to $20 billion in vaccine sales. AstraZeneca has already reached $275 million in a single quarter.

Some companies have promised to sell at cost, some like Pfizer haven't. There are no losses for pharma companies.

Combined with the public funding, chances are every vaccine maker is making money with billions of dollars in grants and billions of dollars in sales and pre-orders.

They are basically raiding treasuries in the middle of a pandemic. Vaccine makers do not need patents to innovate, they have enough incentive from government funding and profits.

The other big problem is hoarding.

More than a billion doses have been administered globally, with 82 per cent of these in the developed world but only 0.3 per cent in the low-income countries.

It is vaccine apartheid. At this rate, the virus will keep mutating in Africa and Asia, and the pandemic will drag on for years.

The US has secured nearly 1 billion doses for 300 million Americans.

Unless the CDC has advised three shots per person, it is a clear case of hoarding. It's been days since the White House promised to share its AstraZeneca doses but American regulators are yet to approve the jab.

It is just sitting on the shelves, 60 million doses waiting to be administered.