Vaccine Capitalism

Chee Loh
3 min readOct 13, 2021

Free market capitalism’s economic model is an obscenely selfish one. In this morally bankrupt capitalist world, the rich — make that the super-rich — take it all.

We thought this would change in the post-pandemic world. No, it hasn’t. If at all, it has become worse. Even the 4.8 million deaths at the hand of Covid-19 haven’t put a stop to the obscenity.

And Big Pharma, despite its feel-good bromides, has gone down with a bad case of it. Moderna, whose vaccine is said to give the best protection against Covid-19, is leading the profit-before-people pack.

Media reports quoting Airfinity, a data analytics company, describe in numbers the pack’s vaccine contribution to low-income countries: Moderna, one million doses, Pfizer, 8.4 million doses and Johnson & Johnson, 25 million doses. Granted, absolute numbers don’t always tell the whole story. For instance, low contribution to countries in need may be due to manufacturing capacities.

Not all three companies have similar capacities.

Even after discounting this, allegations of “vaccine apartheid” aren’t unfounded. Thus far, six billion doses have been administered, and most of them have gone to countries in the rich North.

Low-income countries, as usual, are left behind because they can’t afford to pay what Big Pharma wants. Is it any surprise that vaccine inequity took centre stage at the 76th United Nations General Assembly? South Africa’s President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa is right. It is an indictment on humanity.

What else can we say when more than 82 per cent of the doses have gone to rich countries and only one per cent to low-income ones? Yes, Covid-19 has caused great devastation.

Big Pharma shouldn’t add to this. Profit isn’t the issue. Obscene profit is. The obscenity becomes worse when the vaccines are developed with public funding.

Take the case of Moderna. If The New York Times is right, Moderna’s vaccine made it out with the help of scientists from the National Institutes of Health, and US$1.3 billion in government funding.

If this wasn’t enough, the US government agreed in August last year to preorder US$1.5 billion of the vaccine, thus making sure that Moderna’s unproven product had a market. It is also said to have received US$900,000 from the nonprofit Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation to manufacture vaccine doses for trial.

According to the NYT, Moderna had agreed to the non-profit’s “equitable access principle”, meaning the vaccine would be “first available to populations when and where they are needed and at prices that are affordable, especially to low- and middle-income countries”.

Pfizer’s story isn’t very different. It may not have received direct funding, but its partner, BioNTech SE, did get US$445 million from the German government. Both, however, were promised by the US government US$2 billion for 100 million doses, with an option to purchase 500 million more, according to Bloomberg.

Ditto for Johnson and Johnson, Sanofi and AstraZeneca. According to Health Affairs, the three companies and Moderna received more than US$2.7 billion in government funding to cover expenses related to human trials.

Big Pharma may argue that it has taken a huge risk in manufacturing unproven products. This is only half the story.

The truth is, the public sector has taken as much risk, if not more.