[Ip-health] Stephen Buranyi opinion piece in The New York Times: Big Pharma Is Fooling Us

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Thu Dec 17 22:32:49 PST 2020



Big Pharma Is Fooling Us

Heroic work went into the development of the coronavirus vaccines. But that
doesn’t mean this industry deserves your affection.

By Stephen Buranyi

Mr. Buranyi is a science journalist in London and a visiting lecturer at
the European Business School.

Dec. 17, 2020

It’s about as near as science gets to a miracle: A coronavirus vaccine has
arrived — and the main reason is that mRNA vaccines, a previously untested
technology, appears to work better than almost anyone had hoped.

As recently as this summer, many analysts were pushing their predictions
for a vaccine into the fall of 2021, in line with the timeline of
traditional treatments. If these new vaccines perform as well in the wild
as they have in clinical trials, the world will remember it as a victory
perhaps greater than Salk and Sabin against polio. If this new type of
vaccine also goes on to work against other viruses, it will mark an epochal
advance in vaccinology, closer to the discoveries of Pasteur and Jenner.

But a strange thing has happened in our celebration of this scientific
triumph. While we remember those historic advances as the work of
individual scientists or laboratories, the vaccines against Covid-19 are
being written instead as a victory for pharmaceutical companies.

The rule in press coverage seems to be that the biggest brand involved gets
top credit. And so, every day now there are stories about the Pfizer
vaccine (a collaboration between Pfizer and the German biotech company
BioNTech); the Moderna vaccine (a partnership between the National
Institutes of Health and Moderna); and the AstraZeneca vaccine (a
front-running non-mRNA candidate, in fact created by scientists at the
University of Oxford and developed and distributed by AstraZeneca).


The turpitude of the pharmaceutical industry is so commonplace that it has
become part of the cultural wallpaper. The screenwriters of the 1993 movie
“The Fugitive” knew they could find a perfectly plausible villain to menace
Harrison Ford in a faceless drug company out to cover up its malfeasance.
(The film was a hit.) In John le Carré’s 2001 novel “The Constant Gardner,”
a British diplomat uncovering a pharma giant testing dangerous drugs on
poor Africans is similarly easily to swallow: Its plotline echoes a real
case involving Pfizer in Nigeria. (The company has denied any wrongdoing
and settled out of court the suit brought by the families of children who
died during the testing.)

And yet, since the pharmaceutical industry stepped in with the vaccines,
generations worth of ill will appears to be melting away. Last year, Gallup
polling had the pharmaceutical industry ranked the most disliked in
America, below both big oil and big government. By this September — even
before the vaccines arrived — the industry’s approval rating was already

This isn’t lost on the industry itself. A financial analyst recently told
this paper that Pfizer’s involvement in the coronavirus pandemic was about
“as much public relations as it is a financial return.” In April, the chief
executive of Eli Lilly, the company that put out an antibody therapy for
Covid-19, told investors that the pandemic offered “a once-in-a-generation
opportunity to reset the reputation of the industry.”


The mRNA vaccines in which people are now staking so much hope wouldn’t
exist without public support through every step of their development.
Moderna is not a pharma giant. In fact, it is, in a way, a homegrown
success story. The company, founded in 2010 after a group of American
university professors acquired support from a venture capitalist, has been
working on this technology for years. But Moderna’s original work rests on
earlier discoveries by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania who
have received funding for their research from the National Institutes for

Once the race for a vaccine began, governments supercharged their efforts.
Moderna has received about $2.5 billion in federal research and supply
funding over the past year from the government’s Operation Warp Speed
program, as well as shared technology the N.I.H. had developed for previous
coronavirus vaccines. The N.I.H. also provided extensive logistical
support, overseeing clinical trials for tens of thousands of patients.

Pfizer, meanwhile, likes to say that it eschews federal money to maintain
independence. But it is co-producing and distributing a vaccine from
BioNTech, a company that received more than $440 million in funding from
the German federal government. The vaccine is based on BioNTech’s
technology, with Pfizer stepping in to speed up development and

Pfizer had never produced an mRNA vaccine, but it retrofitted several
factories to do so. In effect, it traded its immense capital and logistics
network for branding rights. Moreover, the U.S. government claims that by
placing a nearly $2 billion order before the vaccine’s final clinical
trials started, it removed significant financial risks for Pfizer.

The development of these vaccines involves a patchwork of academic
research, biotech firms, public institutions, public money and Big Pharma.
This has always been the case, but in the past, governments and academic
scientists were able to have far more control over their contributions.
Both Salk and Sabin made their polio vaccine discoveries patent-free. At
the time, Pfizer was among the main manufacturers and distributors of the
Sabin vaccine — making a tidy profit for providing this service, but
rightly acknowledged as a small part of a larger whole.

Thiru Balasubramaniam
Geneva Representative
Knowledge Ecology International
41 22 791 6727
thiru at keionline.org

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