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Covid-19: The Vaccine Story

A K Ziauddin Ahmed

Covid-19: The Vaccine Story

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According to World Health Organization, globally there were 175,469 confirmed cases and 483 deaths from Covid-19 on November 22, 2022. China reported its first death in six months and 24,215 new cases of Covid-19 infection on November 20, 2022. The pandemic is still dragging on.

The Covid-19 virus first appeared in China in November 2019. In March 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized it as a pandemic. As of November 22, 2022, the worldwide coronavirus deaths stood at 6,602,552. The highest death toll was in the US at 1,067,123.

Besides people’s physical suffering and deaths, there were also huge economic impacts. According to an article by John Elflein published by Statista on November 22, 2022, the forecast for the growth of global real GDP was 2.9% for 2020 but due to the pandemic, the actual growth came down to a negative 3.4%. There were many job losses and changes in the income levels of people. An estimated 130 million people worldwide moved down to the poor category. The travel and tourism industry was hit the hardest. According to International Air Transport Association (IATA), the net post-tax profits of the global world airline industry were $26.4 billion in 2019 which came down to a loss of $137.7 billion in 2020. And Travel Week reported a revenue drop in the global hotel industry by 46% in the same period.

However, there were some exceptions to the widespread economic losses. The online business, for example, boomed during the pandemic as people resorted to buying online as shops were closed or to avoid human contact. Businesses that were selling only through physical outlets started to sell online and offer home delivery. The multinational e-commerce company Amazon’s net sales revenue increased from $280.52 billion in 2019 to $386.06 billion in 2020 and $469.82 billion in 2021. Another business that gained windfall profit is Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers. We will look into this in a bit more detail later on.

The history reminds us of another pandemic - the Spanish flu which was first detected in the USA in March 1918 and lasted till April 1920. There were four waves of the outbreak. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), USA, the Spanish Flu pandemic infected an estimated 500 million people and killed at least 50 million people worldwide. The highest death toll was in then British India at 18.5 million as mentioned in a research article by Niall P. A. S. Johnson & Juergen Mueller published in the journal ‘Bulletin of the History of Medicine’ in 2002. In the United States, the death toll was 675,000. There were no vaccines or treatments.

But for Covid-19 vaccines came out by the turn of the year since the pandemic began. The first two vaccines approved for use were Pfizer BioNTech and AstraZeneca. According to UNICEF, the US approved the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine on December 11, 2020, followed by the UK which approved the AstraZeneca vaccine on December 30, 2020. The work of developing the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine started as early as January 2020 by Biopharmaceutical New Technologies (BioNTech), a German biotechnology company that later partnered with Pfizer. The development AstraZeneca vaccine also began in January 2020 at the Jenner Institute of Oxford University, UK. The university partnered with AstraZeneca, a UK biopharmaceutical company for the production and distribution of the vaccine.

As of November 4, 2022, WHO approved 11 vaccines of which AstraZeneca, Pfizer BioNTech, Sinovac, Sinopharm, and Moderna were the major types. The Sinovac vaccine, also known as CoronaVac was developed by Sinovac Biotech Ltd., a biopharmaceutical company in China. Sinopharm was also developed in China by the China National Pharmaceutical Group Corporation (CNPGC). The Moderna vaccine was developed by Moderna, Inc., a pharmaceutical and biotechnology company in the USA. Both Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech vaccines use mRNA technology. And Moderna holds a patent on this technology. According to an article by Scott Berinato published in the Harvard Business Review in September 2022, Moderna pledged in 2020 that it would not enforce its patents during the pandemic. However, in March 2022 Moderna modified its pledge and said it may enforce patents in higher-income countries. Then it filed a lawsuit against Pfizer for patent infringement.

According to Statista, 12.9 billion doses of vaccines have been administered worldwide by November 2022. A UNDP survey has found that 72.8% of people in high-income countries and 28.22% of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated with these doses. The difference is quite noticeable. Of course, the high-income countries started vaccination on average two months earlier than the low-income countries but the affordability of vaccines was also an issue. The survey ascertains that to cover the vaccination of 70% of the population the high-income countries need to increase their healthcare spending by only 0.8% on average whereas the low-income countries need to increase their healthcare spending by 56.6% on average.

WTO-IMF Covid-19 Vaccine Trade Tracker detected a supply of a total of 15.2 billion doses of vaccines as of May 31, 2022. The top three vaccine types supplied were AstraZeneca, Sinovac, and Pfizer BioNTech all of them were over 3 billion doses.

AstraZeneca producer is a UK biopharmaceutical company. It declared that it would sell Covid-19 vaccines without any profit margin until the end of the pandemic. However, the US company Pfizer made a fortune from the vaccine’s sales. An article by Julia Kollewe published in the Guardian on February 8, 2022, claimed that Pfizer made a profit of nearly $37 billion from sales of the Covid-19 vaccine in 2021 and was expecting another bumper profit in 2022 as well. Macrotrends provides Pfizer revenue figures as $40.91 billion, $41.65 billion, and $81.29 billion in 2019, 2020, and 2021 respectively. Thus, Pfizer’s revenue just doubled in 2021 from its normal trend of around $40 billion. Now, a profit of $37 billion from sales of $81 billion implies a huge margin of over 45%. No wonder, Global Justice Now – a UK-based organization that campaigns for a just and equal world – accused the company of ‘pandemic profiteering’. But there is more for Global Justice Now. On October 20, 2022, Pfizer said it was targeting a price range of $110 to $130 per dose for its vaccine when it goes to the commercial market in 2023. This means a four-fold increase in the price of vaccines and an additional revenue of around $2.5 to $3.0 billion for Pfizer.

 

The writer is a former Corporate

Professional and Academic