Pfizer’s shameless pandemic profiteering

Lenin once said that “war is terrible, terribly profitable.” The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic measures up to warfare, not only in terms of the lives it has taken, but also the grotesque windfall it has provided to capitalist profiteers. The US-based company Pfizer has emerged as the most egregious example of Big Pharma exploiting a horrific public health crisis to swell its coffers.

Known for years primarily for making Viagra, Pfizer’s name is now synonymous with one of the most effective COVID-19 vaccines on the market – although it did not create the technology behind it. Recent investigations have revealed Pfizer has reaped tremendous profits whilst holding millions of lives hostage.

“Once-in-an-epoch economic windfall”

Geoffrey Porges, analyst at the investment bank SVB Leerink, described the $80bn+ projected revenue that Pfizer announced to its shareholders for this year alone as a “once-in-an-epoch economic windfall.” This figure represents upward of 93 percent year-over-year growth in revenue, and a profit margin of around 20 percent before tax for the company.

And the gravy train shows no signs of stopping. Pfizer pocketed $900 million in profit in the first quarter of 2021 alone. Together, the biggest vaccine manufacturers (Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna) rack up more than $1,000 in profit every second.

The source of Pfizer’s to-die-for profits are of course the 2.3 billion doses of mRNA vaccines that it was paid to deliver to governments around the world. Remarkably, Pfizer contributed precisely nothing to the research and development of this vaccine, which has been more than 90 percent effective against COVID-19.

The mRNA technology behind the vaccine was invented in the labs of German company BioNTech, whose name is only politely appended behind Pfizer’s, in accordance with the marketing deal that the two enterprises struck up. Far from a product of free-market ‘innovation’, BioNTech’s research efforts were supported by €375 million euros provided by the German government.

As a former American vaccine procurement official told the Financial Times: “It’s not even [Pfizer’s] vaccine... (this is) the biggest marketing coup in the history of American pharmaceuticals.”

But because Pfizer possessed the capacity to mass-produce the vaccine (and held patents on manufacturing processes), it was able to effectively brand the mRNA vaccine as its product. In other words, Pfizer’s private ownership of the means of production for medicines allowed it to secure a grip on a scientific breakthrough originating in state-funded research.

Maximising profits

Having secured control over the BioNTech formula, Pfizer proceeded to dictate the distribution of the new vaccine, with the explicit mantra of maximising profits rather than efficiently fighting the coronavirus.

The company set scandalous prices, initially demanding the US government pay $200 per two-dose course. It was eventually haggled down to $19.5 per dose in the initial contract, but this compares with a cost of production of just $1.18. In other words, Pfizer is still making gargantuan profits. The company has proceeded to jack up its prices as the pandemic has progressed.

vaccine profit Image public domainPfizer pocketed $900 million in profit in the first quarter of 2021 alone. Together, the biggest vaccine manufacturers (Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna) rack up more than $1,000 in profit every second / Image: public domain

This year, the EU has sought to increase its supply of Pfizer vaccines by five times. In response, Pfizer raised its price by more than a quarter, from the initially agreed level of €15.50 to €19.50 per dose, which European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had little choice but to accept. Similarly, the UK government accepted a price hike from £18 to £22 per dose.

The UK in particular signed a contract with Pfizer that gives the latter tremendous bargaining power.

As revealed in a recent documentary by Channel 4, the British government agreed to Pfizer’s demand that, should the two parties come into dispute over the vaccine contract, the dispute would not be arbitrated by Britain’s own courts.

Instead, it would be settled by an ‘independent’ dispute review board, to which Pfizer has a right to appoint some of its personnel. In addition, all disputes are to remain secret, shielded from public scrutiny.

So not only is Pfizer massively empowered to extract a huge amount of taxpayer money for its product, but those taxpayers have no idea what is agreed upon in the closed-door discussions that determine the price of its contracts.

The governments of poorer countries naturally cannot afford Pfizer’s outrageous prices. This explains why the vast majority of the most effective, privately produced vaccines went to rich countries.

The Financial Times reported that 66 percent of people living in G7 countries have received 2 doses, but this applies to a mere 6 percent of the population of the whole African continent.

Meanwhile, Pfizer has handed over less than 2 percent of the vaccine it produced to COVAX: the UN’s initiative of supplying vaccines to low income countries. Besides being reprehensible in itself, leaving entire nations without an adequate vaccine supply because it is not profitable to do so is also detrimental to ending the pandemic.

We have previously explained that allowing the virus to circulate freely encourages it to adapt and overcome the immunity conferred through previous infection and vaccination. The looming menace of the Omicron variant is precisely a consequence of the unequal distribution of vaccines, for which Big Pharma companies like Pfizer are in large part responsible.

It is actually directly in the interest of these companies for the pandemic to be dragged out for as long as possible. Booster jabs to account for waning immunity and new variants offer another injection of revenue and profits.

One analyst estimates that boosters could bring Pfizer an additional $26 billion in sales and around $7 billion in profits next year.

Already, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla is saying that a fourth dose (and therefore a fourth windfall) may be necessary in future. And when businessmen who stand to make a lot of money tell people, “you need to get a booster vaccine,” the natural response is, “well, of course you would say that.” Leaving the job of vaccinating the world to those who stand only for profit it only further stokes widespread scepticism and vaccine hesitancy.

But to make matters worse, Pfizer has actively also carried out misinformation campaigns to discredit its competitors.

Channel 4’s documentary revealed that Pfizer paid so-called experts to speak at vaccine seminars in Canada, where they would make baseless allegations that AstraZeneca’s (far cheaper) vaccine has the potential to cause cancer, and that it is unsafe for immunocompromised patients.

At a time when the flurry of conspiracy theories are causing sizable populations around the world to become distrustful of vaccines, Pfizer’s narrow interest in edging out competitors is only adding fuel to the fire.

The capitalists bungle vaccination

Had production of vaccines been ramped up from day one and distributed freely as part of a global, coordinated effort, the pandemic could already have been brought to an end. In its place we have to witness the disgusting spectacle of vaccine nationalism. Meanwhile, the regime of private property allowed Big Pharma to manage the level of vaccine production to suit its needs, and jealously guard the technology behind its products.

Instead of ramping up production to meet the goal of vaccinating the world’s population, Pfizer and others have only done so at a pace that would allow them to fulfill their orders profitably. This was recently inadvertently exposed in the Biden administration’s much-touted multi-billion dollar plan to “expand vaccine production”. In reality this ‘plan’ boiled down to little more than negotiating with Pfizer and Moderna about how much the US government will pay them to expand production. In other words, were profit not a question, they could have already ramped up vaccine production.

India covid 2 Image Ninian Reid FlickrPfizer is one of the fiercest opponents of calls to openly share vaccine formulae. Were this done, other vaccine makers and state bodies could produce effective vaccines at lower prices / Image: Ninian Reid, Flickr

On top of this, Pfizer is one of the fiercest opponents of calls to openly share vaccine formulae. Were this done, other vaccine makers and state bodies could produce effective vaccines at lower prices.

But this would also mean Pfizer would lose their monopoly over the vaccine and their leverage over governments, which is bad for business. Hence, we have a situation in which a private corporation is hoarding all the materials and techniques that could potentially have eradicated the virus months ago.

At the end of the day, all of Pfizer’s actions are about maximising profits and nothing more. The actions of Pfizer and the other Big Pharma capitalists are proof – were proof necessary – that we need to immediately seize their assets under state control, so they can be used to produce an adequate vaccine supply to the entire world, as part of a global plan. This would be the surest way to end the pandemic.

Of course, no capitalist government in the world would undertake such measures, which would violate the sanctity of private property.

It falls, therefore, to the working class to overthrow capitalism and begin constructing a socialist society, in order to actually carry out these necessary measures as part of a democratically planned economy.

Given how dire the situation already is, this is the only course of action that guarantees a way out without millions of further deaths.