Pfizer is a tyrant.
This is, in a nutshell, the message conveyed in an October 19 Public Citizen report on the pharmaceutical company’s intransigent approach to negotiating government agreements for the Covid-19 mRNA vaccine that it developed in partnership with the German company BioNTech. The report, which builds on a previous Bureau of Investigative Journalism report on Pfizer’s trading practices, is based on a number of undrafted Pfizer government contracts.
Some company agreements prohibit governments from accepting donations of Pfizer vaccines or even purchasing them from anywhere else.
Public Citizen said the contracts show that some of the company’s agreements prohibit governments from accepting donations of Pfizer vaccines or even purchasing them from anywhere else, prohibiting those governments from donating vaccines without permission. of Pfizer and force them to resolve disagreements in an arbitration panel, rather than in local courts.
Contracts illustrate a company that has had the upper hand in negotiations, taking advantage of its advantage to protect itself from risk. The report says Pfizer has demanded that some governments waive sovereign immunity, which means the company could, in theory, attack state assets if, after a disagreement, an arbitrator ruled in favor. from Pfizer. And, in many cases, Pfizer apparently has sole say in any change to its delivery schedule.
It may all be unsavory, but in the grand scheme of the Covid pandemic, the behavior documented by the Public Citizen report is not that important. Yes, Pfizer could have acted less forcefully in its negotiations with developing countries, although, to be fair, Pfizer also charges lower and lower income countries for the vaccine.
But the Public Citizen report is ultimately a distraction from the real problem.
This problem is not the countries of Pfizer bullying who want to buy from them. The problem is that Pfizer and Moderna, the other company with an mRNA vaccine, don’t have enough vaccines to sell because they have maintained tight control over production.
Most of the hundreds of millions of doses produced by Pfizer and Moderna went to Western countries, notably the United States, which signed huge advance purchase contracts even before the vaccines were approved for use. emergency response from the Food and Drug Administration. The companies insist that they are producing vaccines as fast as possible and that they will be on the verge of producing billions of doses a year by 2022. But the reality is that most of the world’s citizens don’t have not had access to mRNA vaccines, the most effective of the Covid vaccines, while low-income countries have had almost no access to any vaccines.
There are some signs of limited progress on this front. Pfizer’s partner BioNTech has just announced that it has signed an agreement with Senegal and Rwanda to set up its first vaccine factories in Africa, and Moderna has announced that it will also build a factory in Africa. Even so, there is no doubt at this point that the desire to protect their patents and technology has led Pfizer and Moderna to limit licensing and be wary of attempts to transfer their technology to vaccine producers around the world.
BioNTech has just announced that it has signed an agreement with Senegal and Rwanda to set up its first vaccine factories in Africa, and Moderna has announced that it will also build a factory in Africa.
This desire is understandable. Pfizer, in particular, has invested a lot of money in its vaccine and wants to reap the rewards. But current corporate strategies are at odds with what the world needs: more vaccines, as soon as possible.
There are several ways to solve this problem. The most discussed option is a so-called TRIPS waiver of intellectual property rights related to vaccines, which, in theory, would allow countries to manufacture generic versions of mRNA vaccines. But while the US government has expressed support for a TRIPS waiver, many European countries are against it. And it’s by no means clear whether a TRIPS waiver would work without Pfizer and Moderna agreeing to help transfer their technology to companies in other countries.
While Public Citizen has called on the US government to use the Defense Production Act to force Pfizer to transfer its technology, this is unlikely to happen under any circumstances, and it is extremely unlikely given that the goal is to manufacture vaccines for distribution to developing countries. and not the USA
The good news is that vaccine production can be scaled up even without dismantling the existing system of intellectual property protection, as the U.S. government co-owns a vaccine patent that is critical to the technology at the heart of Moderna’s vaccine, including the development was also heavily subsidized. by the US government. This gives the United States considerable power that they could use to push Moderna to license its technology to increase production. Efforts are also underway in Africa to reverse engineer the Moderna vaccine and put it into production. The United States should ensure that the company does nothing to interfere with this project.
More ambitiously, the United States could pursue a strategy outlined by the organization PrEP4All, which argued that the government should build its own massive mRNA manufacturing facility and then license Moderna’s vaccine. PrEP4All claimed that if the United States did this, it could build a facility that could produce enough doses to immunize the entire world, then produce those doses for just $ 12.5 billion. Even if such a project ended up costing three times as much, it would still be inexpensive, given the enormous economic and social benefits of immunization around the world.
Vaccine makers have done the world tremendously well over the past year. But it is time for them to do what is necessary to restart production. And if they continue to drag their feet, the United States should simply take a page out of the corporate playbook. Just as it has used its influence to negotiate with governments, the United States can use its influence to conduct its own negotiations.