COVID-19: Data reveal how Moderna, Pfizer prioritise profiteering at expense of poor nations

Had the world’s top coronavirus vaccine manufacturers – Moderna and Pfizer, not prioritised profiteering over humanity, the cost of vaccinating the global population against the rampaging pandemic may have been cheaper than what it currently is.

Investment in COVID-19 vaccines have created new billionaires, available data has revealed.

The new billionaires include Moderna’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Stéphane Bancel, and Ugur Sahin, the CEO of BioNTech, which co-produced a vaccine with Pfizer.

Both CEOs are now worth around 4 billion American dollars, according to an analysis by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, a campaign group that includes Oxfam, UNAIDS, Global Justice Now and Amnesty International.

Analysis of production techniques for the leading mRNA type vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna suggest these vaccines could be made for as little as $1.20 a dose, Oxfam, an international organisation advocating against inequality, said, in a report issued late July.

But according to a recent analysis by People’s Vaccine Alliance, a global body advocating the equal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, both companies are charging up to 24 times the potential cost of production.

Meanwhile, there is limited public information about the deals these companies have struck with individual governments and global organisations patronising them, a situation that is putting poor countries in a weak bargaining position, according to public health experts.

For instance the U.S. and the European Union are among the very few that disclosed how much they paid for Moderna doses, a New York Times reported.

Pfizer vaccines used to illustrate the story.

The U.S. paid $15 to $16.50 for each shot while the E.U. paid between $22.60 to $25.50 for its Moderna doses, the New York Times reported.

Botswana, Thailand and Colombia, which the World Bank classifies as upper-middle-income countries, are paying $27 to $30 per Moderna dose, the report said.

Uneven distribution

Both companies have delivered fewer of the vaccines ordered by lower-middle-income countries compared to wealthy countries, according to data from science analytics company, Airfinity.

Moderna, whose jabs have been reckoned as arguably the best defence against the pandemic, has shipped the least share of its doses to the developing world than any other vaccine manufacturer.

Airfinity data shows that only one million doses of Moderna vaccine have been delivered to countries that the World Bank classifies as low income despite the rise in infections and deaths in such nations.

What the figure shows

About 11 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines are needed to fully vaccinate 70 per cent of the world’s population against COVID-19.

Enough doses have been administered to fully vaccinate 42.2 per cent of the global population—but the distribution has been lopsided. So far, about 80 per cent of the doses have gone to people in high-income and upper-middle-income countries, statistics have shown.

Only 1 per cent of people in low-income countries have been given at least one dose, according to Our World in Data, a global vaccination data platform.

Countries and regions with the highest incomes are getting vaccinated more than 20 times faster than those with the lowest.

Health experts say, top manufacturers – Pfizer and Moderna – are prioritising profits thereby contributing largely to the stark gap between vaccination programmes in rich nations and the developing world.

Moderna has shipped eight per cent of doses to developing nations, compared to 65 per cent for rich countries; and Pfizer has fulfilled 14 per cent of orders from lower-middle-income countries while it has delivered all of those from wealthy countries, the data revealed.

AstraZeneca as saviour

In contrast, AstraZeneca, patronised mainly by COVAX, the scheme set up to help developing countries get access to COVID-19 vaccines, has delivered 80 per cent of orders from lower-middle-income countries. Also, Sinovac, a Chinese drug company, has delivered all of its orders from such countries, according to Airfinity data.

File photo of Nigeria taking delivery of nearly four million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine

The African vaccination ordeal

Africa, with about 1.3 billion people, has relatively been spared from the pandemics’ most adverse outcomes, despite recording the slowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world.

Just 3.6 per cent of Africa’s eligible population has been inoculated—compared with an average of more than 60 per cent in Europe and Britain.

African countries are mostly developing nations and therefore are left in the back queue in the global scramble for vaccines. They largely rely on donations and arrangements such as COVAX, an international vaccine-sharing scheme for lower-income nations.

The African Union also buys vaccines for its members under the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT).

But COVAX and AVATT have been struggling with manufacturers such as Moderna, prioritising bilateral deals with individual countries, leaving African nations at the end of the queue.

The People’s Alliance reported how the COVAX arrangement have struggled to get enough doses and at the speed required, “because of the inadequate supply and the fact that rich nations have pushed their way to the front of the queue by willingly paying excessive prices.”

The Alliance says the money spent by COVAX to date could have been enough to secure enough vaccines for low- and middle-income countries with cost-price vaccines, if there was enough supply.

The failure of some rich countries to back the removal of monopolies and to drive down these excessive prices has directly contributed to vaccine scarcity in developing nations, the report said.

In May, Moderna offered the African Union doses for about $10 each, according to a bloc official involved in the discussions, the New York Times reported. But the doses will not be available until next year, causing the talks to fall apart, the report added.

“We’re here to make money. We’ve stumbled upon a good thing, and we’re not even trying to pretend that we’re trying to save the world”. That was how Ayoade Alakija who is working with the African Union’s vaccine delivery programme – in the Times report – described Moderna’s attitude in the global vaccine trade.

Moderna agreed in May to provide up to 34 million vaccine doses this year, plus up to 466 million doses in 2022, to COVAX but according to the Times report, the company has not yet shipped any of those doses.

“Pharmaceutical companies are holding the world to ransom at a time of unprecedented global crisis. This is perhaps one of the most lethal cases of profiteering in history”, Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s Health Policy Manager, said in an article published in the organisation’s website.

World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus at a coronavirus press conference in Geneva

The unequal distribution of vaccines is not only a moral outrage, but economically and epidemiologically self-defeating, the head of the United Nations health, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) said earlier this year.

“Vaccine equity is the challenge of our time,” he noted.

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), described the vaccine disparities as “morally unconscionable”.

Moderna’s chief executive, Stéphane Bancel on Friday told The Times “it is sad that his company’s vaccine had not reached more people in poorer countries but that the situation was out of his control.”

Buhari kicks

Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, in his Independence Day broadcast to Nigerians on October 1, condemned the current method of global distribution of vaccines.

He said the world cannot afford the situation “where a handful of countries keep the global vaccine supply to themselves at the expense of other nations.”

Mr Buhari said he had shared the same message to the global community during his presentation at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, last week.

President Buhari speaking to the nation

He said; “We must act now to accelerate equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. This is the message I conveyed to the international community in New York last week.”

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