The eight top Pfizer and Moderna shareholders made over $10 billion last week when their stock holdings skyrocketed after the discovery of the new Omicron variant. This comes as global public health advocates warn the world will keep seeing more coronavirus variants unless wealthy nations and vaccine manufacturers do more to address vaccine inequity. “The companies that make the most are doing the least to share their technology,” says Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now U.K., which is documenting Big Pharma’s profits. “The priority is making enormous amounts of money for some of the richest people in the world.”
AMY GOODMAN: As nations brace for new surges of coronavirus cases as the Omicron variant spreads, vaccine manufacturers are seeing their profits soar. A new report by Global Justice Now found the eight top Pfizer and Moderna shareholders saw their stock holdings jump $10 billion last week following the discovery of the new variant. One of the report’s authors tweeted, “When is a new COVID variant good news? When you’re a pharma shareholder, obviously!”
Well, this comes as global public health advocates warn the world will keep seeing more coronavirus variants unless wealthy nations and vaccine manufacturers do more to address vaccine inequity. The World Trade Organization was scheduled to hold a ministerial meeting last week to discuss a waiver on intellectual property rights for vaccines, but the meeting was postponed due to the Omicron variant.
We’re joined now by Nick Dearden. He’s the director of Global Justice Now, which is part of the People’s Vaccine Alliance.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Nick. Why don’t you start off by just laying out what you found?
NICK DEARDEN: Thanks, Amy.
Well, look, we already knew that the vaccines that have been produced, often with public knowledge, have made an absolute fortune for some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. I mean, just the two really big ones, Pfizer and Moderna, those vaccines are bringing their manufacturers in $1,000 a second. So these were already the most lucrative medicines in history. And we thought, “Well, let’s look at what happened,” when we were all worried last weekend about the Omicron variant starting to spread. “Let’s look what happened to the stock of those companies.”
And what we found, as you said, is that it absolutely soared, that a few shareholders — and when I say shareholders, I mean super wealthy, super big investment corporations — saw their share price rise $10 billion over a few days. Just the CEO of Moderna saw his share price rise $800 million. That’s just one person. He cashed out $3 million on the basis of that rise. So they made an absolute killing off an event — and this is the real scandal — off an event which they’re responsible for.
I mean, let’s be honest, experts have been warning us for months now, unless we vaccinate the whole world as rapidly and fairly as possible, we are going to see variants arise, and some of them risk our own vaccination programs here in Europe and North America. But actually what you’re finding is the companies that made most are doing the least to share their technology. They’re doing the least to vaccinate the world. They have basically put profits before any other consideration. They’ve sold huge amounts to governments in the Global North.
And as I said, let’s remember, this is publicly created know-how: the Moderna one, 100% research by the public sector; Pfizer also a huge amount of money given to it by the public sector. And yet they’re doing nothing to ensure equitable access at all. One of my friends in the People’s Vaccine Alliance joked, you know, “We shouldn’t be calling this Omicron; we should be calling this the Pfizer variant or the Moderna variant.” I think we’ve really seen here the utter folly of handing over global vaccination to these big pharmaceutical corporations, for whom the public healthcare is not a priority. The priority is making enormous amounts of money for some of the richest people in the world.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nick, you mentioned the CEO of Moderna, who’s refused to share the recipe for Moderna’s vaccine with the World Health Organization. Could you talk about the impact of that decision, in particular, on global vaccine inequality?
NICK DEARDEN: Absolutely. So, one of the things that gives me hope in this pandemic now is many countries in the world have looked at what Western leaders like Boris Johnson have done, and have said, “We’re not relying on you in a future pandemic. We need to build our resilience. We need to start making this stuff ourselves, whether you give us the recipe or not.” And so the World Health Organization is backing a factory and scientists in South Africa now to begin producing an mRNA vaccine. That’s the name of the technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. And they’re going to share that with the world. When they’ve worked out how to do it, they’re going to share it with any country that can safely produce it, any factory that can safely produce it, because hundreds of millions more doses could be produced at the moment if we just shared this vaccine.
And they went to Pfizer, and they went to Moderna, and they said, “Will you share the recipe? Because that will allow us to make this very quickly.” And both those corporations said no. So, what that means is they’re going to keep doing it. They’re going to keep going. They’re going to reverse engineer or mimic the Moderna vaccine, without permission, and they’re going to begin sharing it. But of course it will take them much, much longer, because they have to work out how to do it. So it could make the difference of — you know, it could be the difference between a few months and a few years in terms of how long this takes. Can you imagine what that means in terms of deaths?
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla being questioned last month by CNBC host Joe Kernen.
JOE KERNEN: Do you see this happening every year? We either get a booster, a regular booster of the same vaccine, or a slightly different vaccine every year to deal with what we’re seeing with these mutations? Is that what you foresee? It’s almost like a — I mean, for Pfizer, you’d be selling these things every year. Not that you want to do that. I’m sure you’re not hoping for that. But it would be almost like an annuity for Pfizer.
ALBERT BOURLA: Yeah. I did make a projection months ago that the most likely scenario, it is that we will need after the third dose annual revaccinations against COVID for multiple reasons, because of the immunity that will be waning, because of the virus that I’m sure will be maintained around the world for the years to come, and also because of the need of variants that will emerge. I’m more confident right now that this will be the case than I was when I made the projection. I think we are going to have an annual revaccination.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could respond to the Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla? And also, I’m a bit confused, because I watched Noubar Afeyan, the co-founder and chair of Moderna, being interviewed by Fareed Zakaria, and he said that Moderna is the only company sharing their formula. He went on to say that they won’t enforce patents against anyone who uses our patents, he said, to make a vaccine against the pandemic. If others can do that, that’s great. Can you respond? Is he telling the truth?
NICK DEARDEN: Absolutely. So, first of all, of course, you’re right. Pfizer sees this now as a major contribution to their income for years into the future, because of the monopolies they now hold on this vaccine, monopolies held up by global trade laws. I mean, it’s interesting you started this piece by saying the WTO summit was canceled. Precisely it was at that summit where many countries, like South Africa and India, were coming to say, “Override these monopolies. Let us, at least for the length of the pandemic, not put intellectual property law ahead of saving people’s lives around the world.” So it’s somewhat ironic that that very summit had to be canceled because of the emergence of this variant that was a result of the very trade rules that the WTO upholds. So, yes, they’ve absolutely always seen this as a massive income stream going forward. It’s going to raise them like over $35 billion this year, potentially up to $50 billion on their vaccine next year, so just phenomenal, phenomenal amounts of money that have never been seen before in the history of Big Pharma.
When it comes to Moderna, yes, they’re saying they won’t enforce patents, but they’re also doing nothing to share their recipe. And they’re only saying they won’t enforce it during the period of the pandemic. And let’s bear in mind that this technology they’re sitting on, this mRNA technology, it’s not even just about COVID. This is a revolutionary technology, as I said already, created by public resource, which holds out the possibly of vaccinations for HIV, for malaria, the ability to deal much better with certain types of cancer. This is a revolutionary technology, and these two corporations want to sit on this technology as long as they can because this is their fortune made for decades into the future. And what we’re saying is —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nick, Nick, I wanted to ask —
NICK DEARDEN: — “You’ve already made money” —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Nick, I wanted to ask you: This whole issue of the public investment in this technology, could you go a little bit more into detail about the U.S. government’s investment, especially in Moderna, and now the battle that has developed between the government and Moderna over who really has the biggest share or a share of the responsibility for the development?
NICK DEARDEN: Absolutely. So, if you look at the work of — the excellent work that Public Citizen has done, they say 100% of Moderna’s vaccine was researched by government-paid scientists. The manufacturing, the rollout of that was then also helped to the tune of billions of dollars from the U.S. government under Operation Warp Speed to both Pfizer and Moderna to help get this vaccine manufactured, tested and trialed. So it is in very many ways a public vaccine. In very many ways, it should be a public good.
The problem is governments, like yours and mine, don’t put sufficient conditions onto this research. They simply privatize it and allow these corporations to monopolize that research for decades into the future. So, that’s precisely what’s happened here. And now the U.S. government, under Biden, which, by the way, supports the TRIPS waiver — we would like it to do more, but nonetheless, you know, at least it is supporting the call of India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization, unlike my own government. But what they’re doing is they’re saying now, “Well, we own some of these patents, actually. We own some of this intellectual property, because we put money into it.” And Moderna is refusing to even acknowledge this.
I mean, there is a court case going on now. So the figures I quoted to you at the top of this piece, they would have been much, much greater had it not been that Moderna has lost an appeal at the moment against the U.S. government, which is trying to say, “We own some of this intellectual property.” And, of course, one of the things we’re saying to President Biden, alongside campaigners in the U.S., is, “You absolutely do own some of this. It is time to exercise emergency powers, wartime powers, to say, 'This is a public good, and we are going to march in, and we're going to take these patents and this know-how, and we’re going to share it with the world and ramp up manufacturing as fast as we possibly can, because we cannot allow you any longer to put profits ahead of saving lives.’”
AMY GOODMAN: Nick Dearden, I want to thank you for being with us, director of Global Justice Now, part of the People’s Vaccine Alliance.
Next up, we’re going to look at how the Biden administration stalled on its promise to implement a $2.5 billion plan to thwart Omicron-like variants. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell, one of this year’s Kennedy Center honorees. A celebration was held in person on Sunday.