One year ago, the FDA granted emergency use authorization of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S., and nearly 549 million total vaccine doses have been given since. These vaccines have been safe, effective methods in preventing infection and death from COVID-19.
Vaccine recipients had a lower overall risk of death from non-COVID-19 disease compared to unvaccinated counterparts.
Among available vaccines, mRNA products have been the most effective against COVID-19 and its variants. The benefits of vaccination, especially with mRNA technology, should not be limited to wealthy countries. With over 5.86 million COVID-19 deaths globally, less-vaccinated countries cannot wait to gain sufficient vaccine availability. They should also not have to wait for donated support. It is vital to share vaccine technology with the world to save more lives, not just the lives of Americans.
Moderna, the much younger company of the two mRNA vaccine producers, had a major stock crash this month as insiders cashed out on pandemic profits amid vaccine sale declines and subsiding Omicron cases. While Pfizer has experienced stock declines, albeit less steep, both companies’ trailing gross profits remain between $10 million for Moderna and $50 million for Pfizer.
A central contention to Pfizer and Moderna sharing mRNA technology is that other countries do not have the resources to follow the advanced, lengthy protocol to produce the vaccine. This, however, is not proven.
Doctors without Borders, with the help of AccessIBSA, has identified over 100 manufacturers in Asia, South America and Africa that have the baseline needs to produce an mRNA vaccine.
On the moral front, this is not the first time in history where a U.S.-based pharmaceutical company was called to action to place people over profit.
While in graduate school for public health, I analyzed a case study with my peers. A major American pharmaceutical company, Merck, could cure river blindness in several countries, but the drug would not garner profits. Onchocerciasis, or river blindness, is a parasitic disease that was causing agricultural communities to become blind and devastating people’s ability to care and provide for their families.
Painfully aware of the systems of capitalistic health care in the U.S., most of my classmates suspected the company would minimally intervene, if at all. Thankfully, that was incorrect.
In 1987, Merck pledged to donate Mectizan, a drug that cures river blindness, for as long as it was needed until the disease was no longer a threat to over 300 million people in 49 countries. The program is over 30 years old and remains as an ongoing triumph of pharmaceutical leadership.
Many of these vaccines are from Pfizer and Moderna, however, they were not free. The U.S. had to purchase vaccines from each company to then donate to the global campaign. While exact amounts were not disclosed, the original agreement with Pfizer in June of 2020 was $1.95 billion for 100 million vaccines, or $19.50 per dose. Countries with low vaccine availability, therefore, are largely at the discretion of vaccine production and shipping times from only the facilities that currently operate.
Financially, Moderna had a $3.3 billion net income in November 2021, which added 3 executives to Forbes’ 400 richest Americans list. It employs over 1,800 people with a net worth of $59 billion. Pfizer had $83.1 billion as total 2021 revenue, employs over 10,000 people, and has a net worth of $272 billion.
Stocks for both companies are currently experiencing market falls, but each can afford to share the life-saving technology and the subsequent trade agreements that would likely be enforced. Both companies received billions in government and private funding for the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, excluding additional profits from other COVID-19-related products.
While the U.S. has over 64% of its total population fully vaccinated, and over 75% of its population has at least one dose of an EUA-approved vaccine, the 50 least wealthy countries have access to only 6.3% of total available vaccine products.
If multiple countries have the capacity to produce vaccines within their own borders, time is wasted waiting for Pfizer and Moderna to produce enough vaccines to reach all corners of the world.
The World Health Organization launched a vaccine equity campaign in the winter of 2021, underscoring the immediate need to better distribute COVID-19 vaccinations globally. The pandemic will not end without sufficient global vaccination.
Pfizer has a particular onus to help intervene globally as one of the largest and most profitable pharmaceutical companies in the world. With its immense capital power, Pfizer should shift some of their spending from national ads promoting their vaccine product in a country that has large booster vaccine availability to sharing the technology that can help countries self-produce and vaccinate their citizens much faster.
Even if new production facilities had delays from receiving the mRNA technology protocol to production, the months spent toward self-producing could be expediting vaccine receipt for countries otherwise waiting until the end of 2022 for donated vaccines.
In a pandemic that is approaching six million global deaths, time is the most valuable resource in fulfilling vaccine equity. Countries cannot wait to save lives while wealthy pharmaceutical companies gatekeep vital technology.
Amber Gipson-Fine is a project manager.
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