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$65,000 a Minute: Big Pharma Profits Soar from Vaccine Monopolies

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Moderna released its 2021 annual report which showed the pharmaceutical giant made $12.2 billion in profits last year. Pfizer similarly reported $21.9 billion in profits in the same time, while Johnson & Johnson reported $4.7 billion. While vaccines aren’t the only products these companies make, they themselves will be the first to tell you that the credit for this incredible fiscal year is largely due to the production of their respective COVID-19 vaccines. 

One thing they might be slower to mention is that these profits are made on the backs of U.S. government spending. Massive amounts of public funding have gone into the production of the COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.S. For example, the U.S. government provided Moderna with nearly $10 billion in taxpayer money for the research and development of their vaccine, along with the purchase of 500 million doses of the vaccine. This incredible price tag reportedly covered almost the entire cost of the clinical development for their vaccine. Moderna was also given access to patents by the U.S. government that they used to make their vaccine. 

The 2021 third quarter financial reports released in November showed that Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna have been making combined profits of $65,000 every minute off of vaccines that were almost entirely developed by public funding. These two companies alone have produced five new billionaires during the pandemic, with a combined net wealth of over $35 billion from their monopolies on their vaccines. 

Pharmaceutical companies frequently claim that their exorbitant prices are due to their own need to recuperate the costs of research and development for their life-saving products. However, as we can see in the case of Moderna, even when their products are funded almost entirely by the public, the company is still seeking to make astronomical profits. 

However it’s not just the profits made of these vaccines that are an issue; the distribution of the vaccines themselves poses a serious problem. A recent report showed that, of the 1.8 billion COVID vaccine donations promised by rich nations to the neocolonial world, only about 14% had been delivered as of October 2021, even as new variants of the virus mutate and wreak havoc around the world. 

According to the report: “Almost half (49%) of the vaccines sold by AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson have been delivered to high-income countries, even though such countries only comprise 16% of the world’s population.” 

In fact, as of October of 2021, Moderna had only delivered 0.2 percent of their total vaccine supply to low-income countries and Pfizer/BioNTech delivered less than 1 percent. 

Vaccine Inequality Under Capitalism

This unequal international distribution of vaccines is a product of the capitalist system. The governments of wealthy imperialist nations like the U.S., desperate to reopen their economies and send the working class back to work, place enormous pressure on vaccine manufacturers to deliver their product to them first. The motivation to increase their profits drives these companies to compete instead of collaborating to maximize production of high-quality accessible doses for the world, and has served as a basis to refuse international calls to share their vaccine patents and technology

These refusals from Big Pharma come because despite the fact that sharing vaccine technology would lead to greatly increased vaccine production and more equitable distribution, it would also reduce the edge they have over their competitors and lead to reduced prices for the vaccines they already produce and charge top dollar for. Despite the fact that releasing their intellectual property would shorten the pandemic and save countless lives, the profit motive under capitalism demands that these companies jealously guard any information that could allow anyone else to make their products. 

Due to the failure of the capitalist governments around the world to successfully facilitate mass vaccination, COVID is not only spreading worldwide among unprotected people, but is also mutating. New variants emerging out of the poorest countries are now threatening to unleash themselves on even fully vaccinated people thousands of miles away.

As The Guardian reports: “In December of 2021, UK’s Department of Health, placed a travel ban on southern Africa, while issuing a warning that the ‘Omicron’ variant of COVID-19 was the most ‘complex’ and ‘worrying’ seen yet.” Pharmaceutical companies have produced over 11 billion vaccines in 2021 alone – more than enough to vaccinate the whole world. Despite this, many countries are facing shortages, even as new variants emerge that the current vaccines have reduced capacity to inoculate against.

The Socialist Solution

In the U.S. alone, more than 800,000 workers are employed in the biopharmaceutical industry. Worldwide more than 5.5 million workers are employed in the pharmaceutical industry, with over 3 million being in Asia. In 2017, the industry had a global GDP of over half a trillion dollars, fully accounting for 1% of the entire global GDP by itself. The pharmaceutical industry is massive. It is both extremely profitable for the capitalist class, and huge sections of the working class internationally find themselves employed in it. 

However, instead of putting millions of people to work to rid humanity of our most dangerous diseases, these workers’ scientific and medical efforts are pitted against each other in a race to develop vaccines and medications that will be sold to the highest bidders and exported to the richest regions of the richest countries. Meanwhile, the companies laying claim to these miracles of modern science steadfastly refuse to share patents and vaccine technology for fear of being out-competed in the marketplace and missing out on a chance to increase their profits. 

This arrangement where workers toil away to save lives only to have the ruling class stand in the way is not only morally intolerable, it is completely unsustainable. COVID has affected all our lives in one way or another; even if not all of us have fallen sick with it, we have been affected by supply chain disruption, mental anguish and isolation, and the economic recession that COVID-19 sparked. Capitalism has shown that it has no way to bring a swift end to the pandemic, and it’s left many feeling like they have no choice but to simply pretend it isn’t happening. We don’t have to just accept the devastation and death COVID-19 has brought as an immutable fate; a better world is possible!

In order to fully combat COVID-19 and prepare for future pandemics, the entire healthcare industry should be taken into public ownership and control – including pharmaceutical research and development, and technology vital to vaccine development should be shared with every nation on earth immediately. Instead of the profit-driven economy of capitalism, we need an economy that is deliberately planned to serve human need. This socialist economy would be planned by democratically elected councils of workers from each industry representing the working class as a whole. Ultimately, to provide a planned health care system that works for everyone requires doing away with the whole profit-driven capitalist system. 


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