COVID “Vaccine Billionaires” Strike It Rich as Poor Nations Struggle for Access

At least nine people involved with companies that develop and manufacture COVID vaccines have become billionaires since the beginning of the pandemic, thanks to the monopoly power of pharmaceutical firms, according to new analysis by global health groups.

The new billionaires’ combined net wealth of $19.3 billion would cover the cost of vaccinating everyone in low-income countries where vaccines largely remain out of reach and roughly 10 percent of the world’s population lives, according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of global health and trade groups, which analyzed Forbes Rich List data.

The New York Times vaccine tracker reports that only 0.3 percent of the global vaccine supply has reached the 29 poorest countries, while 84 percent of vaccines have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Nearly half the population of the United States has received at least one dose, compared to 14 percent in South America, 4.8 percent in Asia and 1.2 percent in Africa, according to researchers at Duke University.

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization said global disparities in vaccine access are now so wide that the world is experiencing “vaccine apartheid,” with ongoing outbreaks and variants threatening to undermine progress on inoculation, affirming what global health campaigners have been saying for months.

“What a testament to our collective failure to control this cruel disease that we quickly create new vaccine billionaires but totally fail to vaccinate the billions who desperately need to feel safe,” said Oxfam Health Policy Manager Anna Marriott, in a statement.

Topping the list of newly-minted billionaires is Stéphane Bancel, a French businessman and CEO of Moderna, the Massachusetts-based company that developed a leading vaccine with a $6 billion investment from the U.S. government. Bancel is now worth $4.3 billion. Four top Moderna scientists, investors and contractors are also on the list. Uğur Şahin, CEO and co-founder of BioNTech, the German company that worked with Pfizer on another leading vaccine, is now worth $4 billion.

“These vaccines were funded by public money and should be first and foremost a global public good, not a private profit opportunity,” Marriott said. “These billionaires are the human face of the huge profits many pharmaceutical corporations are making from the monopoly they hold on these vaccines.”

Advocates released the list of new “vaccine billionaires” ahead of the G20 Global health Summit, where leaders of wealthy nations are meeting Friday to discuss the pandemic and other health challenges. Several G20 members are home to vaccine manufacturers, including the United States, and invested heavily in vaccine development through partnerships with the private drug companies. They are now under massive global pressure to push vaccine makers to share recipes and proprietary manufacturing know-how with generic drug firms that serve lower-income countries.

More than 60,000 people died from COVID across South America and South Asia last week, representing 70 percent of global deaths during that period of time, according to Amnesty International. Based on current vaccine distribution plans, the group says that lower-income countries will not receive enough doses to achieve widespread coverage until at least 2023, putting the whole world at risk as outbreaks continue and variants develop.

“If pharmaceutical companies fulfilled their human rights responsibilities and stopped lobbying against efforts aimed at widening access and started sharing their knowledge and technology, more vaccines could be produced at a fairer price,” said Amnesty International Health Advisor Tamaryn Nelson in a statement ahead of the G20 summit.

Nelson added that not one pharmaceutical company has agreed to share “intellectual property and know-how” through the World Health Organization, which set up a pool for sharing vaccine development data and knowledge with the hopes of transferring technology and manufacturing licenses to potential producers that could make vaccines for poorer nations.

Key G20 members, including the United Kingdom and Germany, have continued to block a proposal before the World Trade Organization to lift vaccine patent enforcement and waive international intellectual property protections for proprietary manufacturing technology and know-how, according to global health groups. Advocates said Canada, France and Italy are “on the fence” about the waiver, although French president Emmanuel Macron recently said he supports a patent waiver and the European Union is open to negotiations.

Proponents of the intellectual property and patent waiver argue it would help generic drug makers in countries like India and South Africa enter the COVID vaccine market, as opposed to burdensome contracts with monopolistic manufacturers that restrict where vaccines are distributed. About 100 middle- and lower-income countries support the waiver, according to Amnesty International.

Experts warn that waiving patents on vaccine formulas is not enough; generic manufacturers also need access to proprietary know-how and manufacturing technology. Moderna, for example, pledged not to enforce its vaccine patents as long as the pandemic continues, but no independent producer has been able to replicate its mRNA vaccine, a process that would also require regulatory approval.

Pharmaceutical companies oppose the IP waiver — which threatens to lower vaccine prices and cut into profit margins by allowing generic competition — arguing that drug makers need incentives to create vaccines and increasing manufacturing capacity in countries already making vaccines would be faster and more efficient. The pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. spent a record $92 million lobbying lawmakers and federal officials in the first three months of 2021.

After coming under pressure from Democrats in Congress and countries across the world, the Biden administration sided against the pharmaceutical lobby and reversed course from the Trump administration, announcing earlier this month that it would negotiate at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to lift intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines. However, the administration warned the negotiations would “take time” and did not specifically say whether it supports a proposal introduced in October by India and South Africa that would also waive IP protections for other COVID products, such as treatments and diagnostic tests.

In addition to the nine new vaccine billionaires, eight existing billionaires with extensive portfolios in drug and biotech firms behind leading vaccines have seen their collective wealth balloon by $32 billion, enough money to fully vaccinate everyone in India. COVID Outbreaks have devastated India in recent weeks, and the country’s vaccine shortage could last for months. Cyrus Poonawalla, the Indian businessman and founder of the Serum Institute, the biotech company in India making vaccines domestically, has seen his net worth increase from $8 billion to $12.7 billion over the past year.