An average vaccine typically takes anywhere from 10 to 15 years to develop. Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca finished theirs in a matter of months, cobbling together an ambitious vaccine through previously untested mRNA technology that might just rival the one against polio in both scope and success.
In the scientific world at least, the COVID-19 research efforts will go down as a triumph.
But the vaccine also offers an unexpected plot twist: Here is the most loathed industry in America now swooping in to the rescue as drug companies eye a public relations turnaround. What should we think of the pharmaceutical industry after the pandemic?
It’s not all golden halos for the pharmaceutical industry. There’s a cruel irony in the way Pfizer announced its vaccine success just a month after Purdue Pharma’s $8.3 billion settlement for its role in the opioid crisis last November. And in the midst of the COVID-19 vaccine efforts, pharmaceutical companies have continued lining their pockets and privatizing their gains. Moderna accepted a total of approximately $2.5 billion in federal funding and made no promises that it wouldn’t seek to profit. Although Pfizer turned down government funding in the interests of moving “as quickly as possible,” it partnered with BioNTech, which has received $440 million from the German government. Following its $1.95 billion supply deal with the U.S. government, Pfizer can expect to rake $19.50 per shot. That amounts to a more than “decent” 60 to 80 percent profit margin.
But profit-reaping tendencies aren’t even at the heart of Big Pharma’s vaccine problem. With smaller manufacturing footprints, mRNA vaccines are supposedly less expensive and less industrially demanding to produce — yet the vaccine production in its first months came in fits and starts. Even with a steady increase in production in the weeks since the winter, most timelines still project a fully vaccinated general public in late spring or early summer. The return to normal is thus slower than it might have been otherwise. And that’s partly because production depended on licensed producers and facilities. Rather than benefiting from open cooperation among drug manufacturers, private corporate interests hamstrung the efficiency of vaccine rollout. For many, that may have made the difference between life and death.
Scientific miracles shouldn’t absolve an industry that’s so often been ridden with greed, monopolizing and in the worst of cases, a callous disregard for life. Price gouging is as real and prevalent as it ever was; taxes are sidestepped and patents abused, allowing corporations to maintain their control over certain medications. Amid the prospect of a much-awaited reentrance to daily life and a 7 percent uptick in approval rating during the last months of 2020 — the third-best improvement out of all the sectors — it’s important not to be wooed by Big Pharma’s short-term contributions and lose sight of the greater ethical concerns that persist.
Of course, questioning the labels on the vials and syringes in a time like this might seem strangely perverse, like biting the hand that feeds you. So much of science is tedious trial and error, wrestling uncertainty and the unknown. Vaccines and years’ worth of effort can get scrapped by a few underperforming test trials. We’ve been hunting for vaccines to HIV for nearly 40 years and counting, yet to no avail. Researching any novel virus — not to mention devising readily reliable solutions — is a high order that demands hefty funding and even greater patience. That Pfizer and Moderna both pulled off a vaccine at previously unheard rates deserves some credit of their own.
Still, we shouldn’t let our recognition of Big Pharma eclipse the countless other unsung players in the vaccine’s development — the millions of independent scientists, public officials and FedEx deliverymen who make the boggling logistics of research, development and distribution even possible — and of whom too few are ever recognized. Vaccines might be privatized, but science will not; its very beauty lies in that collective, collaborative search for answers.
Moderna and Pfizer may have helped to save the day, but they’re far from cape-wearing heroes. A vaccine can’t ever make amends for the roughly 150,000 lives claimed by opioid prescriptions, its notoriously prohibitive drug prices, its secrecy and tight-fisted control over the means of production. Stepping out from the shadows of its unsavory past will require more steps to increasing transparency and public accountability.
If nothing else, though, there’s still a glimmer of hope. The vaccine is a start to reawakening the dialogue between corporations, scientific circles and the public. A fully vaccinated U.S. by the summer might give us a sample of just what tax dollars, academic research and the Big Pharma complex working in concert could accomplish in the future.
HANWEN ZHANG is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. His column, titled ‘Thoughtful spot,’ runs every other Thursday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.