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Elizabeth Warren seizes on bumper vaccine sales to urge more access

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Elizabeth Warren, the progressive Democratic senator from Massachusetts, has called on Pfizer and Moderna to boost global access to their Covid-19 vaccines following their announcement of record sales last week.

The move coincides with a push by non-governmental organisations, shareholder advocacy groups and the World Health Organization to address a major disparity in access to vaccines between rich and poor nations.

“Pfizer and Moderna have already raked in billions [of dollars] in profits through the sales of their Covid-19 vaccines,” Warren told the Financial Times. “These companies must do more to address the unacceptable disparities in global access to Covid-19 vaccines, including by dramatically expanding vaccine manufacturing around the world.” 

The US companies are currently forecasting combined sales worth up to $54bn this year, well above initial estimates of $33bn in February when they began rolling out Covid-19 jabs to the public. Airfinity, a health data analytics group, forecasts they will generate a massive $93.2bn in vaccine sales in 2022.

The companies did not respond to a request for comment on Warren’s statement.

With Pfizer’s Covid vaccine on course to become the world’s highest-selling pharmaceutical product in a single year, pressure is mounting on the companies to license their technology to generic producers in low-income nations.

Pfizer, its German partner BioNTech and Moderna have so far resisted calls to share their technology with other companies, which critics allege has resulted in vaccine shortfalls in Africa, where just 7 per cent of people are fully vaccinated.

Instead, the vaccine makers have focused on boosting their own production, selling the jab at lower prices to middle and low-income nations and announcing plans to build facilities in Africa.

Albert Bourla, Pfizer chief executive, has said that removing patent protection for Covid vaccines would disincentivise companies from risk taking and create more supply problems by causing a scramble for raw materials.

One US senator, Angus King, an independent from Maine, has written to Pfizer and Moderna urging them to follow the example of Merck and licence their technology to generic manufacturers and the UN-backed Medicines Patent Pool, an organisation formed to boost access to life-saving drugs to low and middle-income nations.

Merck last month signed a royalty-free deal last month with the MPP to boost access to its antiviral pill to treat Covid-19 in low-income nations.

“While I understand your preference for in-house production, it appears that there are generic pharmaceutical firms with the technical capacity to measure up to the requirements of your production standards and substantially increase global vaccine availability,” King wrote in the letter.

Last week Oxfam joined forces with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, or ICCR, and the investor groups Mercy Investments and Trinity Health to file shareholder resolutions calling on Pfizer and Moderna to consider transferring their skills and technology.

The huge profits generated by Covid vaccines, which have benefited from public investment, could increase the focus on pricing, particularly if booster jabs become an annual event, according to some health experts.

The debate occurs against the backdrop of a dispute between the US National Institutes of Health, a federal public health agency, and Moderna over the company’s decision to exclude three NIH scientists from co-ownership of a patent central to its vaccine.

Francis Collins, NIH director, told Reuters news agency on Wednesday that Moderna had made a “serious mistake” in not providing co-inventorship credit to people who played a major role in developing a vaccine that the company was now “making a fair amount of money off of.” 

Pfizer and Moderna have not published most of their vaccine contracts with governments, but deals agreed with the EU in the summer showed Pfizer charged €19.50 a dose and Moderna charged $25.50 a dose, according to documents seen by the FT.

In March a senior Pfizer executive suggested the company could raise vaccine prices when “normal market conditions kick in” when the pandemic is declared over.

“No other global vaccine has ever been this profitable, this fast, and so that raises eyebrows and concerns,” said Dr Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist and vice provost of global initiatives at University of Pennsylvania. “I do think the price has to come down.”

But he said it was important to recognise the huge benefits that the vaccines have had in terms of preventing deaths, hospitalisations and enabling the economy to reopen. “When you look at the economic losses they prevented, it’s hard to say they don’t deserve a bonus,” Emanuel said.

Additional reporting by Kiran Stacey in Washington

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