Opinion | Don’t Fall for Big Pharma’s Savior Act

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Even amid this public relations coup, pharmaceutical corporations can’t help but revert to type. They will profit handsomely from these vaccines, even when they claim to be acting selflessly. And they largely are monopolizing access, which means that millions in the global south may not get the lifesaving vaccines for months.

The mRNA vaccines in which people are now staking so much hope wouldn’t exist without public support through every step of their development. Moderna is not a pharma giant. In fact, it is, in a way, a homegrown success story. The company, founded in 2010 after a group of American university professors acquired support from a venture capitalist, has been working on this technology for years. But Moderna’s original work rests on earlier discoveries by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania who have received funding for their research from the National Institutes for Health.

Once the race for a vaccine began, governments supercharged their efforts. Moderna has received about $2.5 billion in federal research and supply funding over the past year from the government’s Operation Warp Speed program, as well as shared technology the N.I.H. had developed for previous coronavirus vaccines. The N.I.H. also provided extensive logistical support, overseeing clinical trials for tens of thousands of patients.

Pfizer, meanwhile, likes to say that it eschews federal money to maintain independence. But it is co-producing and distributing a vaccine from BioNTech, a company that received more than $440 million in funding from the German federal government. The vaccine is based on BioNTech’s technology, with Pfizer stepping in to speed up development and manufacturing.

Pfizer had never produced an mRNA vaccine, but it retrofitted several factories to do so. In effect, it traded its immense capital and logistics network for branding rights. Moreover, the U.S. government claims that by placing a nearly $2 billion order before the vaccine’s final clinical trials started, it removed significant financial risks for Pfizer.

The development of these vaccines involves a patchwork of academic research, biotech firms, public institutions, public money and Big Pharma. This has always been the case, but in the past, governments and academic scientists were able to have far more control over their contributions. Both Salk and Sabin made their polio vaccine discoveries patent-free. At the time, Pfizer was among the main manufacturers and distributors of the Sabin vaccine — making a tidy profit for providing this service, but rightly acknowledged as a small part of a larger whole.

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