As the UK approaches its first 30 million Covid-19 vaccinations, which represents over 50% of the adult population now protected, the question of the ownership of the pharmaceutical industry comes into question.
Is the rapid development of a Coronavirus vaccine evidence that the private sector can get it right? Does this show, as Boris Johnson claimed, that capitalism and greed are the way forward?
Development of the vaccine
On 9th November 2020 Pfizer and BioNTech, two private firms working as partners on a vaccine against Covid-19, announced that after initial trials their vaccine appeared to be more than 90% effective. This is a huge breakthrough in the fight against coronavirus.
So how did the private pharmaceutical companies develop these vaccines in a few months when normally this process would take maybe up to ten years? Before Covid-19, the fastest ever vaccine developed was a Mumps vaccine developed by Merck in four years.
Developing vaccines requires money. With, Covid-19 governments around the world have been willing to throw cash at vaccine developers, even though there was a risk they would get nothing back in return. It was this readily available cash, which sped the process up, rather than any loosening of normal rules and procedures.
Regulators worked closely with companies to make sure their trials provided all the data needed for approval and when it was safe to do so the different phases of trials could overlap, with larger, later trials starting before smaller preliminary ones had concluded. For example, in Oxford they were able to start human trials the day after animal safety data had been published.
The global pharmaceutical market was worth $1.3 trillion in 2019, vaccines represented just 3% of this total worth $33 billion. Before the Covid pandemic there were just four main players in the vaccine market, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Pfizer, and Sanofi who collectively represented 90% of global vaccine revenues in 2019.
The pre-Covid market was based on a high price, low volume model of vaccine production serving the developed world. Pharmaceutical companies would make their profits predominately by selling their vaccines to the rich countries in the West.
Millions of pounds are paid out of NHS budgets to big pharmaceutical companies every year for expensive drugs, many of which have been at least partially funded at the research and development stage with public money.
At the turn of the millennium, nearly 30 million children in developing countries were either not fully immunised against deadly diseases or were not immunised at all. This was a stark failure of the market; powerful new vaccines were becoming available but poorer countries simply could not afford them.
In 2000 the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation – today Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance was established to encourage manufacturers to lower vaccine prices for the poorest countries in return for long-term, high-volume, and predictable demand. This has seen an improvement in immunisation rates however by 2016 still 5 million children under 5 years old died each year from preventable diseases.
With the emergence of Covid-19, governments around the world have de-risked and subsided the research and development process of vaccines every step of the way. Facing an economic downturn to the tune of several trillion dollars this seemed a small price to pay. An example of this is Moderna: a biotech company which had previously never brought a product to market. They had spent a decade developing mRND technology (so called messenger RNA vaccines are a new type of vaccine which teach our cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response inside our bodies) were handed $4 billion by the US government in 2020 to develop their vaccine. According to Stéphane Bancal, CEO of Moderna, the pandemic has speeded up the company becoming a commercial going concern by 3-4 years.
The first approved vaccine in the western world was developed by Pfizer and BioNTech using mRNA technology. Pfizer achieved this without taking any government money, however Pfizer did have the luxury of a $1.95 billion advance purchase agreement with the US government considerably reducing the risks for the company.
All around the world governments have subsidised or funded Covid-19 development. China and Russia developed their own vaccines. The German government gave BioNTech $445 million, the UK funded Oxford University to the tune of £65.5 million and their partner AstraZeneca received $1.2 billion from the US government. As Sarah Gilbert, Lead Researcher at the Oxford Vaccine Programme says as a university they can carry out much of the early clinical development but could never have bought a vaccine to market without government financial intervention.
Covid-19 has exposed the private sector
The success of the Covid-19 vaccines has exposed the private pharmaceutical industry rather than established the success of the private sector model of medicine. Many people now openly ask why governments and big pharma can develop a safe and reliable vaccine in a tenth of the time as previously when the global economy is at stake. Why do millions of the world’s poor die from preventable diseases every day when relatively cheap medicines and vaccines are readily available?
It was the willingness of governments to fund research and development into covid vaccines and the unusual cooperation between pharmaceutical companies that produced this quick response to the pandemic, but this same public money and cooperation has also led many to question why this is not the norm.
Under capitalism, companies compete against each to be the first with a breakthrough treatment for diseases with the prize being billions in revenue when successful. Some of the world’s best scientists work in competition with each other rather than pooling their knowledge for the benefit of society.
Socialism would mean real progress
Under socialism, research and development of medical treatments and vaccines would be funded by the state. The giant pharmaceutical companies all over the world would be taken into public ownership and run for the benefit of the whole of humanity not just for the huge profits of the few. Nationalisation of the supply chain would also ensure the smooth supply of the components needed and for the planned production of medicine and vaccines without the threat of disruption.
We need democratic control and management of big pharma to plan research and development into vaccines and other lifesaving drugs. Scientists, health workers, trade unions, and the communities affected by diseases and potential future pandemics could coordinate research and manufacturing capacity and ensure unnecessary human suffering is ended by eradicating the profit motive from health care.