Stocks of major pharmaceutical corporations plummeted Wednesday after the Biden administration announced its support for a coronavirus vaccine patent waiver, a measure that would free vaccine recipes from Big Pharma’s stranglehold and help enable generic manufacturers to ramp up global production.
As CNBC reported, shares in Pfizer, BioNTech, Novavax, and Moderna fell to “session lows” after the Biden White House endorsed the waiver — a potentially seismic move that came after weeks of tireless campaigning by progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups.
Canada, European Union member nations, the United Kingdom, and other wealthy countries remain opposed to the waiver, leaving the chances of consensus approval at the World Trade Organization highly uncertain.
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Nevertheless, the Biden administration’s support for the waiver spooked investors and infuriated the pharmaceutical industry, which has been lobbying hard against the proposal in an effort to preserve its immensely profitable monopoly control over vaccine production.
“Cry no tears for these death profiteers,” environmentalist and author Naomi Klein tweeted in response to a CNBC graphic showing the major sell-off of pharma shares on Wednesday.
— CNBC Now (@CNBCnow) May 5, 2021
“It’s almost as if the financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry are diametrically opposed to the health and well-being of the planet,” added consumer watchdog Public Citizen, part of a broad coalition of global civil society groups that has been pushing U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders to back the patent waiver for months.
The Financial Times reported Thursday morning that the Biden administration’s decision to back the temporary intellectual property waiver — which South Africa and India first introduced at the WTO in October — “prompted instant outrage in the pharmaceutical sector.”
“Shares in the big makers of Covid-19 vaccines were hit by the announcement,” FT noted. “Frankfurt-listed shares in BioNTech lost 14 percent on Thursday. Moderna and Novavax closed down by between 3 percent and 6 percent in New York the day before.”
Warren Gunnels, staff director for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said Wednesday that “after taxpayers paid Pfizer, BioNTech, Novavax, and Moderna $13.5 billion for Covid-19 vaccines, seven executives at these firms became billionaires and are now worth $17.2 billion.”
“No one should have gotten wealthy off of these vaccines,” Gunnels added. “They belong to the people, not billionaires.”
Allowing a handful of pharmaceutical companies to dictate global supply of life-saving coronavirus vaccines has been disastrous for much of the developing world, which has struggled to obtain and administer doses after profit-seeking drugmakers sold most of their early production to wealthy countries.
Now, as cities in rich nations accelerate their reopenings amid stagnant or falling case counts, skyrocketing infections in developing countries such as India, Brazil, and Thailand are pushing global case counts to a new peak, intensifying calls for sweeping action to boost vaccine production and distribution.
While insufficient to solve global production shortages on its own, India and South Africa’s patent waiver would lift a key legal barrier that’s preventing manufacturers around the world from copying existing vaccine recipes and mass-producing generic versions.
“In the many months since this waiver was first proposed, we could have produced many hundreds of millions more vaccines,” Nick Dearden, director of the London-based advocacy group Global Justice Now, said in a statement Wednesday. “Let’s get moving.”