Free the Vaccine
Activists rally outside Pfizer headquarters in New York City on March 11, 2021. (Photo: Steve Frances Kong)

At least nine persons have become new billionaires since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, thanks to the excessive profits pharmaceutical corporations with monopolies on COVID vaccines are making, said the People’s Vaccine Alliance (PVA), a group advocating turning vaccine receipts into a global public good.

Between them, the nine new billionaires, have a combined net wealth of $19.3 billion, enough to fully vaccinate all people in low-income countries 1.3 times, said the PVA.

Meanwhile, the PVA said, the low-income countries have received only 0.2 per cent of the global supply of vaccines, because of the massive shortfall in available doses, despite being home to 10 per cent of the world’s population. In addition, eight existing billionaires – who have extensive portfolios in the COVID-19 vaccine pharma corporations – have seen their combined wealth increase by $32.2 billion, enough to fully vaccinate everyone in India.

The CEOs of Moderna and BioNTech top the list of nine individuals who became billionaires on the back of the rollout of vaccines against Covid-19, found the PVA.

The PVA said: Forbes data updated in April shows that nine Big Pharma figures have become dollar billionaires since the beginning of the pandemic, as the stocks of vaccine manufacturers soared with the news of robust profits.

Much of the scientific research that went into the creation of effective vaccines against Covid-19 was paid by taxpayers’ money, but the private companies that hold monopolies on the resulting intellectual property (IP) are the ones that reap the rewards. This situation is unjust and should be changed, argues the PVA, which is calling for the lifting of IP protections for the vaccines ahead of a G20 summit.

Validating the point is the change in the net wealth of the individuals linked to the pharmaceutical business, the PVA said.

The PVA found:

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel is the richest new ‘vaccine billionaire,’ followed by Ugur Sahin, his counterpart from BioNTech. Each is now worth over $4 billion. Others on the list include three Moderna investors, the chair of a firm contracted to manufacture and package Moderna’s product, and the three co-founders of the Chinese vaccine producer CanSino Biologics.

Eight others, whose wealth had already topped the billion-dollar benchmark when the pandemic hit, have seen their wealth grow significantly. They include people linked to China’s Chongqing Zhifei Biological and Sinopharm, India’s Cadila Healthcare and the Serum Institute of India, and holders of BioNTech stock.

Topping the list of new billionaires who have cashed in on the success of COVID vaccines are the CEOs of Moderna and BioNTech, each with a wealth over $4 billion or more. The list also includes two of Moderna’s founding investors and the company’s chair as well as the CEO of a company with a deal to manufacture and package the Moderna vaccine. The final three new vaccine billionaires are all co-founders of the Chinese vaccine company CanSino Biologics.

Campaigners from the PVA – whose members include Global Justice Now, Oxfam and UNAIDS, have analyzed Forbes Rich List data to highlight the massive wealth being generated for a handful of people from vaccines which were largely public funded.

Vaccine billionaires are being created as stocks in pharmaceutical firms rise rapidly in expectation of huge profits from the COVID-19 vaccines over which these firms have monopoly control.

The PVA warned that these monopolies allow pharmaceutical corporations’ total control over the supply and price of vaccines, pushing up their profits while making it harder for poor countries, in particular, to secure the stocks they need.

Vaccine manufacturers and those like Bill Gates, who support IP protections for medicines, claim factors such as the shortage of proper production capacities in the developing world and logistical bottlenecks are holding back the global vaccination effort. Lifting patent protections will not fix that and may make the rollout slower, not faster, they warn.

Governments are split on the proposal. South Africa and India asked for a waiver under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, and dozens of poorer nations that felt they were being left behind by the better-faring countries backed the call. The effectiveness of COVAX, the WHO-endorsed vaccine-sharing mechanism meant to ensure equitable access, has been underwhelming at best, suffering from underfunding and undersupply.

The U.S. and the EU said they were ready to consider some form of patent suspension, with the likes of Russia, France, and Spain indicating they would support such a move. Germany and the UK, on the other hand, have expressed their opposition.

The statement from the PVA comes a day ahead of a G20 Global Health Summit, which is being held in Rome on Friday and will see pressure applied to participants defending vaccine patent protections. Key members of the G20, including the UK and Germany, are blocking moves to boost supply by ending companies’ monopoly control of vaccine production as COVID-19 continues to devastate lives in countries like India and Nepal where only a tiny fraction of the population has been vaccinated. Rich nations, including the UK and Germany, are still blocking the proposal, putting the interest of pharmaceutical companies over what is best for the world. Italy, host of the G20 Summit, are continuing to sit on the fence on the issue, as are Canada and France.

“These billionaires are the human face of huge profits many pharmaceutical corporations are making from the monopoly they hold on these vaccines,” said Anna Marriott, the health policy manager at charity Oxfam, a member of the Alliance.

Anna Marriott said:

“We need to urgently end these monopolies so that we can scale up vaccine production, drive down prices, and vaccinate the world.

“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.

“These vaccines were funded by public money and should be first and foremost a global public good, not a private profit opportunity.”

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of another Alliance member, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, said it was “obscene that profits continue to come before saving lives,” as patent holders refused to share their technology.

Heidi Chow, Senior Policy and Campaigns Manager at Global Justice Now, said:

“As thousands of people die each day in India, it is utterly repugnant that the UK, Germany and others want to put the interests of the billionaire owners of Big Pharma ahead of the desperate needs of millions.

“The highly effective vaccines we have are thanks to massive amounts of taxpayers’ money so it can’t be fair that private individuals are cashing in while hundreds of millions face second and third waves completely unprotected. It is a sad indictment of the loyalties of some current governments that a handful of people working for pharmaceutical companies have been allowed to become billionaires off the back of publicly-funded efforts to end the pandemic.”

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS, said:

“While the companies making massive profits from COVID vaccines are refusing to share their science and technology with others in order to increase the global vaccine supply, the world continues to face the very real risk of mutations that could render the vaccines we have ineffective and put everyone at risk all over again.

“The pandemic has come at a terrible human cost, so it is obscene that profits continue to come before saving lives.”

The PVA said: The figures for vaccinating all poorest countries are based on countries defined as “Low Income” for which the population is 775,710,612 (according to UN Population 2020). The average vaccine cost, $19, is based on the average mid-range cost per course of vaccination of the 5 leading vaccine producers. However, the prices should be far lower and the $19 is for illustration purposes and is in no way an endorsement of these unacceptably high prices. The population of India (according to UN Population 2020) is 1.38 billion and the increase in wealth of the 8 existing billionaires could vaccine everyone in India 1.2 times. All figures based on a two-dose regimen.

The nine new vaccine billionaires

The nine new vaccine billionaires, in order of their net worth are:

  1. Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s CEO (worth $4.3billion)
  2. Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of BioNTech (worth $4 billion)
  3. Timothy Springer, an immunologist and founding investor of Moderna (worth $2.2bn)
  4. Noubar Afeyan, Moderna’s Chairman (worth $1.9 billion)
  5. Juan Lopez-Belmonte, Chairman of ROVI, a company with a deal to manufacture and package the Moderna vaccine (worth $1.8 billion)
  6. Robert Langer, a scientist and founding investor in Moderna (worth $1.6 billion)
  7. Zhu Tao, co-founder and chief scientific officer at CanSino Biologics (worth $1.3 billion)
  8. Qiu Dongxu, co-founder and senior vice president at CanSino Biologics (worth $1.2)
  9. Mao Huinhoa, also co-founder and senior vice president at CanSino Biologics (worth $1 billion)

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