COVID vaccines: calling the shots

Before the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the world, the big pharmaceutical companies did little investment in vaccines for global diseases and viruses.  It was just not profitable. Of the 18 largest US pharmaceutical companies, 15 had totally abandoned the field.  Heart medicines, addictive tranquilizers and treatments for male impotence were profit leaders, not defences against hospital infections, emergent diseases and traditional tropical killers.  A universal vaccine for influenza—that is to say, a vaccine that targets the immutable parts of the virus’s surface proteins—has been a possibility for decades, but never deemed profitable enough to be a priority.  So, every year, we get vaccines that are only 50% efficient.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the attitude of big pharma.  Now there are billions to be made in selling effective vaccines to governments and health systems.  And in double-quick time, a batch of apparently effective vaccines has emerged with every prospect of them being available for people within the next three to six months – a record result.

There should be authorisation of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines by year-end in the EU and the UK, with the deployment of an initial 10-20 million doses each (5-10 million treatments) underway through the turn of the year. Widespread vaccination from COVID-19 beyond high-risk groups is likely to be underway across Europe by the spring, with a sufficiently large share of European populations vaccinated by the end of the summer.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 was reported to have over 90% efficacy. Moderna reported that its vaccine reduced the risk of COVID-19 infection by 94.5%.  Among other leading vaccine developers, AstraZeneca is expected to release Phase III trial results by Christmas, with a number of others currently also conducting late-stage trials. By year-end, the EU and the UK should have enough doses to treat around 5 million people each (with a single treatment involving two doses).  And there are others: Gamaleya, Novavax, Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi-GSK; as well as the Sputnik vaccine from Russia and China’s own.

How was this possible so quickly?  Well, it was not due to big pharma coming up with the scientific research solutions.  It was down to some dedicated scientists working in universities and government institutes to come up with the vaccine formulas.  And that was made possible because the Chinese government quickly provided the necessary DNA sequences to analyse the virus.  In sum, it was government money and public funds that delivered the medical solution.

Basic research for US vaccines is done by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Defense Department and federally funded academic laboratories. The vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna rely heavily on two fundamental discoveries that emerged from federally funded research: the viral protein designed by the NIH; and the concept of RNA modification first developed at the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, Moderna’s founders in 2010 named the company after this concept: “Modified” + “RNA” = Moderna.

So Moderna’s vaccine has not come out of nowhere. Moderna had been working on mRNA vaccines for years with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the NIH. The agreement consisted of some level of funding from Moderna to the NIH, along with a roadmap for NIAID and Moderna investigators to collaborate on basic research into mRNA vaccines and eventually development of such a vaccine.

The US government has poured an additional $10.5 billion into various vaccine companies since the pandemic began to accelerate the delivery of their products. The Moderna vaccine emerged directly out of a partnership between Moderna and the NIH laboratory.

The US government—and two agencies in particular, the NIH and Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA)—has invested, heavily, in the vaccine’s development. BARDA is an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services formed in 2006 in response to—wait for it—SARS-CoV-1 (and other health threats). It provides direct investment in technologies to firms, but also engages in public-private partnerships (PPPs) and coordinates between agencies. A specific part of BARDA’s mission is taking technologies through the “valley of death” between creation and commercialization.

The German government ploughed funds into BioNTech to the tune of €375 million, with another €252 million has been made to support development by CureVac.  Germany also raised its contribution to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) by €140 million and plans to provide an additional €90 million next year.  CEPI was launched in Davos, Switzerland, in 2017 as an innovative global partnership between public, private, philanthropic and civil society organisations to develop vaccines to counter epidemics, and Germany pledged an annual €10 million over a four-year period to support the initiative. CureVac is one of nine institutes and companies commissioned by CEPI to conduct research into a COVID-19 vaccine. One of its shareholders is the government-owned Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW) bank.

But it is big pharma that develops the vaccine from the scientific work of public institutes.  They call the shots. The drugs companies do the global clinical trials, then produce and market the result.  Then they sell the vaccines to governments at huge profits.  This is the way things were done before the pandemic – and now. In the US, in the 10-year period between 1988 and 1997, public-sector expenditures for vaccine purchases doubled from $100 to $200 per child through age 6. The cumulative public-sector cost doubled again in less than 5 years between 1997 and 2001, from $200 to almost $400 per child.

Very little is still known about the terms of the COVID vaccine contracts that EU governments have signed with pharma groups including AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech, Sanofi-GlaxoSmithKline and CureVac. But once the secrecy is peeled away, what we will see is a massive privatisation of billions of dollars of government funds.  It is reckoned that the AstraZeneca has sold its jab to governments at about $3 to $4 a dose, while the Johnson & Johnson shot and the vaccine jointly developed by Sanofi and GSK were priced at about $10 a dose. AstraZeneca has promised not to profit from its jab during the pandemic, but that applies only until July 2021.  After that, they can cash in.  US biotech Moderna is going to charge $37 a dose, or $50 to $60 for the two-shot course.

Coronavirus vaccines are likely to be worth billions to the drug industry if they prove safe and effective. As many as 14 billion vaccines would be required to immunize everyone in the world against COVID-19. If, as many scientists anticipate, vaccine-produced immunity wanes, billions more doses could be sold as booster shots in years to come. And the technology and production laboratories seeded with the help of all this government largesse could give rise to other profitable vaccines and drugs.

So while much of the pioneering work on mRNA vaccines was done with government money, the privately owned drugmakers will walk away with big profits, while governments pay for vaccines they helped to fund the development of in the first place!

The lesson of the coronavirus vaccine response is that a few billion dollars a year spent on additional basic research could prevent a thousand times as much loss in death, illness and economic destruction. At a news conference US health adviser, Anthony Fauci, highlighted the spike protein work. “We shouldn’t underestimate the value of basic biology research,” Fauci said.  Exactly. But as many authors, such as Mariana Mazzacuto have shown, state funding and research has been vital to development of such products.

What better lesson can we learn from the COVID vaccine experience than that the multi-national pharma companies should be publicly owned so that research and development can be directed to meet the health and medical needs of people not the profits of these companies.  And moreover, then the necessary vaccines can get to the billions in the poorest countries and circumstances rather than to just those countries and people who can afford to pay the prices set by these companies.

“This is the people’s vaccine,” said corporate critic Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program. “Federal scientists helped invent it and taxpayers are funding its development. … It should belong to humanity.”

14 thoughts on “COVID vaccines: calling the shots

  1. Reblogged this on Raccoon Blog and commented:
    I assume Roberts is okay with me reblogging this on my own site. I won’t do that often but its an interesting feature of WordPress. This needs to get as much exposure as possible. It explains exactly what the big problem has been with infectious diseases.

  2. You seem to be implying that the speed of vaccine development is a good thing. It is not. The mRNA vaccines are experimental and the makers have sought immunity from prosecution and indemnity.
    MRNA vaccines carry the very real risk, massively exacerbated by the hysteria to produce a vaccine ‘yesterday’, that the cells into which this mRNA enters will produce waste products that provoke a T-cell autoimmune response that will attack perfectly healthy cells. This is particularly worrying as none of the susceptible groups (people over 65yrs with serious comorbidities) has been part of the trials. So, given that those in danger are less than 1% of the population, the main argument for this vaccine is that state-funded mRNA vaccines will produce herd immunity by injecting a big part of the remaining population who are in no mortal danger statistically speaking, either from the virus, or from becoming seriously ill with COVID-19.
    The way this is justified is based on deliberately misleading news stories that proclaim that nobody is immune to the disease or the virus that can cause it. This has been disproven even by a study by Christian Drosten’s team in Berlin.
    But the most important and respected study was this one https://www.researchsquare.com/article/rs-35331/v1 which shows that T-cell immunity to SARS-1 is 100% 17 years after the virus appeared to disappear. And effective t-cell immunity to SARS-COV-2 is present in 81% of blood samples taken from patients taken long before SARS-COV-2 or COVID-19 had been identified. So, for example in London, over 17% were infected by May and had antibodies. That combined with the natural background T-cell reaction means herd immunity already exists for about 40-90% possibly more.
    The “scientists” advising the UK govt do not include a team of immunologists of standing. How else can you explain the fact that despite overwhelming evidence of T-cell cross-immunity or background immunity the SAGE committee still peddles nonsense about there being no immunity, and even going on about antibodies falling off after time!

    p.s. It should be recalled that Pfizer was fined over $2bn in 2009 by the US Justice Department for fraudulent misrepresentation of their drugs. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-announces-largest-health-care-fraud-settlement-its-history

    1. Seconding this. Typically, the time it takes for a vaccine to be released from research & development all the way to distribution takes more than 10 (ten) years.

      @Chinareporter
      You said that “The mRNA vaccines are experimental and the makers have sought immunity from prosecution and indemnity”. Do you have any source for this?

      Thanks

  3. Great post, well researched and informative. Yup there are two parasites in this story. The first is the virus that co-opts cells and Big Pharma that co-opts govt research. Chinareporter is right. Big Pharma is trying to create the climate where dubious science is used to promote annual vaccinations. They want to turn the Corona virus into the gift that keeps on giving.

  4. A criticism of the development of corona vaccines remains blunt if it is limited to the fact that “Big Pharma” or “Big Money” are leading the way. It is normal in capitalism for big capital to lead the way. This normality will be generally accepted because “Big Pharma” reacts to a burning problem now and in this case – a vaccination against the corona pandemic – albeit with expensive government support.
    The scandal with and behind the vaccines, however, is private property: Private ownership of a vaccine makes it necessary that all important information remains secret and that a lot of money is wasted because almost 50 vaccines will be developed simultaneously and side by side.

    1. @Wal Buchenberg: In this case, it is not “Big Pharma” which produced the first available vaccines, but small young upstarts like BioNTech, Moderna and CureVac (there may be others, which I dont know), focussed on a radically new technology, Message RNA (mRNA). As in the case of BioNTech with Fosun and Pfizer, there are secondary partners, mainly needed for their ability to organize the Phase III clinical trials with tens of thousands of participants.

      OK, these startups have been able to attrackt “Big Money” and also governments to finance them, but “Big Pharma” themselves have not contributed much to the races for the first vaccine.

      At CureVac (Tübingen, Germany) it is Dietmar Hopp, who became super-rich as a co-founder of the Mannheim based software company SAP, developing ERP software. Hopp has also invested in football, and is hated by the “ultra” football fans in Germany for becoming de facto owner of the Heppenheim football club.

      At BioNTech there are two people, thousands of millions of EUR and USD heavy, who have participated in founding the companyas an 16.11.2020 article in the Franfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Die Milliardäre hinter der Erfolgsgeschichte tells, but unfortunately behind a pay wall, so that one can only read the intro, but the names are hidden. I guess, the first two names listed as members of the supervisory board are the ones.

      BTW, Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin had founded before another company called Ganymed which they sold to Astellas Pharma Inc. before founding BioNTech as a mRNA company.

      1. BTW 2: The “Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” also has invested in the capital of CureVac.

        But Curevac, while being in the news in Spring, is behind in the race for “I am first!” with a vaccine. But that is capitalism…

      2. I got access to this FAZ article via a two week test account.

        The two Milliardaires¹ are the uniovular twins Andreas und Thomas Strüngmann, sons of a physician who owned a little generica company. Andreas studied medicine, and made is interships in the pharmaceutical industry, Thomas studied Business administration, and wrote a thesis about the prescription habits of private medical practitioners.

        In 1986, they founded the generic drug company Hexal which they sold nearly 20 years later to the Swiss Novartis corporation for 7.5 thousand million USD. End of 2005 they bought Bayer’s division for infectious diseases.

        In 2007, thru Michael Motschmann (now No. 2 on the BioNTech Supervisory Board²) they made the acquaintance of Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, who still had their first company Ganymed, and were convinced of their ideas about individualized cancer therapies. So they invested 150 million €, and later more and more. In 2008, the current company BioNTech was founded.

        I would like to know the details of the decision process from learning of the epidemic in Wuhan, getting the genetic sequence of the new virus, and the begin of the developement of the vaccine.

        The media report, that by developing the BNT162 vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2, and the strategic alliances with Fosun Pharma and Pfizer, Uğur Şahin became one of the 100 richest people in Germany and of the 500 richest people of the world.

        So, “Big Money” came out of it…

        __Notes___________________________
        ¹
        Miliard is the original international word for 1000 millions, but the USAnians misunderstanding that replaced that with “billion”, which is actually again 1000 times more. USAnians call that a Trillion. And since the USA is (still) the mighiest power on this planet…

        ²
        The No. 1 in the list of the Supervisory Board, Helmut Jeggle, is a longtime associate of the Strüngmann brothers and is the CEO of the company which administrates their various investments.

  5. So let me set the record straight on the economics of the falsely named “Pfizer-BioNTech” or even “Pfizer vaccine” (especially since Trump claimed to be the originator of this vaccine), including who owns what and who pays to whom (I hope that my HTML tagging works in this implementation of WordPress).

    This has been developed by the German company BioNTech, seat in Mainz, which had been founded in 2008 with the purpose of developing individualized Cancer therapies based on mRNA (Messenger RNA) technique, thus being similar to the US company Moderna formed two years later and another German company called CureVac with seat in Tübingen (this latter had been in the news in the spring, because of the rumor that the US government planned to acquire this company, after Curevac was present in a meeting with other vaccine developing companies in the White House).

    BioNTech informs here about their project of a vaccine against the SARS-Cov-2 virus:
    https://biontech.de/covid-19

    On March 16, BioNTech told the public per press release about “rapid progress on COVID-19 vaccine program”, that “BioNTech’s product candidate, BNT162, is a potential first-in-class mRNA vaccine in the worldwide effort against COVID-19″ and that “BioNTech intends to initiate clinical testing for BNT162 in late April 2020, subject to regulatory approval, as part of a global clinical development program in Europe (commencing in Germany), the United States and China.”

    The same day, BioNTech informed about a COVID-19 vaccine strategic alliance in China with Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical (Group) Co., Ltd (“Fosun Pharma”) with these terms highlighted in the press release:

    • BioNTech and Fosun Pharma will jointly conduct clinical trials of BNT162 in China, leveraging BioNTech’s proprietary mRNA vaccine technology and Fosun Pharma’s clinical development and commercialization capabilities in China
    • Fosun Pharma will commercialize the vaccine in China upon regulatory approval, with BioNTech retaining full rights to develop and commercialize the vaccine in the rest of the world
    • Fosun Pharma will pay BioNTech up to USD 135M (EUR 120M) in upfront and potential future investment and milestone payments; the two companies will share future gross profits from the sale of the vaccine in China

    Important also this term: »BioNTech will supply the mRNA vaccine for clinical trials from GMP manufacturing facilities in Europe along with its partner Polymun,« i.e. the Chinese development partner will not produce its own test vaccines, also not when he points to improvement of the vaccine candidate resulting from his tests.

    Next day, on March 17, BioNTech informs about a letter of intent Pfizer and BioNTech to Co-develop Potential COVID-19 Vaccine »The companies expect to utilize multiple research and development sites from both companies, including in the United States and Germany, to house the activities identified by the collaboration agreement.«

    On April 9, 2020, the two companies informed about “further details” of their collaboration, highlighting these terms:

    »
    • BioNTech will contribute multiple mRNA vaccine candidates as part of its BNT162 COVID-19 vaccine program, which are expected to enter human testing in April 2020

    • Pfizer will contribute its leading global vaccine clinical research and development, regulatory, manufacturing and distribution infrastructure and capabilities

    • BioNTech will receive an upfront payment of $185 million, including an equity investment of approximately $113 million, and be eligible to receive future milestone payments of up to $563 million for a potential total consideration of $748 million. […] Pfizer and BioNTech will share development costs equally. Initially, Pfizer will fund 100 percent of the development costs, and BioNTech will repay Pfizer its 50 percent share of these costs during the commercialization of the vaccine.
    «

    I think it was these upfront payments which enabled BioNTech to acquire a factory in Marburg, Germany from the swiss company Novartis (https://investors.biontech.de/news-releases/news-release-details/biontech-acquire-gmp-manufacturing-site-expand-covid-19-vaccine )

    All press releases here: https://investors.biontech.de/press-releases (including about injections of money from the German government, and from private investor Temasek, Singapore; and about the progress of the clinical trials in Europe, USA, China, and contracts with governments to deliver quantities of the vaccine, once approved).

    In August, the BTN162 vaccine candidate had evolved to BTN162b1, and in September to BTN162b2.

    And on November 18, 2020, “Pfizer and BioNTech Conclude Phase 3 Study of COVID-19 Vaccine Candidate, Meeting All Primary Efficacy Endpoints”

    On BioNTech

    BioNTech had been founded in 2008 in Mainz by a couple of medical scientists with Turkish roots (who before had founded another company, and sold that one).

    She, Özlem Türeci, born 1967 in North-West Germany. Her father was (is?) surgeon, who moved from Istanbul to Germany, where he worked in a hospital in the small town of Lastrup. She serves as Chief Medical Officer of BioNTech.

    He, Uğur Şahin, was born September 19, 1965, in Iskenderun, Turkey, but moved aged 4 with his mother to join the father who worked at the Ford automobile works in Cologne. He is the Chief Executive Officer of BioNTech.

    The couple met at the Saarland University, whose medical faculty is not in Saarbrücken, but a little bit further east, in Homburg (Saar), where the “Saar” indicates that this is in the Saarland federal state, not to be confused with “Bad Homburg” which is near Frankfurt. And Homburg (Saar) is not on the banks of the river Saar, but on its right tributary Blies.

    More https://biontech.de/our-dna/leadership

    1. Oops, the default style for the BLOCKQUOTE HTML tag produces a font size which is far too big. It should be 1 point smaller (at least) than the regular paragraph font size.


  6. If I can’t hope, nothing’s ever gonna change“ – Hope by the Cable Ties


    Here’s an article Big Pharma and covid vaccine development by British Marxist economist Michael Roberts.   … about how we need people’s ownership of vaccine development!


    Please note I would be careful about drug companies claims of efficacy of the Covid vaccines. There is insufficient data to support what are at best press releases by drug companies and politicians:

    The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 was reported to have over 90% efficacy. Moderna reported that its vaccine reduced the risk of COVID-19 infection by 94.5%.The article asks why big pharmaceutical companies are suddenly interested in creating vaccines, the US statistics give a clue. – Ian Curr, 13 Jan 2021.


    Chilling US Covid Stats as at 12 Jan 2021


    __oOo__

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