For the Love of God, Stop Celebrating Big Pharma’s COVID Profiteers

Over the past few months, pharma giants like Pfizer and Moderna have become household names and fodder for affectionate memes. But their prominence reflects how the market has cannibalized science and public health during a global crisis. Big pharma still is not your friend.

"The Three Vaccines — After Raphael" by Italian urban artist TVboy in Barcelona, Spain. (Xavi Torrent / Getty Images)

In 1924, a trademark application was filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Wisconsin for a product described as “absorbent pads or sheets for removing cold cream.” The product in question was Kleenex, which according to company lore was relaunched as facial tissue after an employee with hay fever used one of the disposable clothes to blow his nose. As of 2010, Kleenex enjoyed a sizable though less than majority market share. No matter: for whatever reason — though presumably in large part thanks to its long-term dominance of the market — the trademark has become a stand-in for facial tissues in general and is even recognized as such by Merriam-Webster: the brand now being synonymous with the product, the product inextricable from the brand.

It’s probably an innocuous enough development, at least to anyone who isn’t a prospective competitor. For obvious reasons, it would be much harder to say the same if the Kleenex trademark applied to a more valuable, consequential, or urgently-needed commodity — a single brand possessing even symbolic monopoly over a major technological innovation or life-saving medicine being something most people would intuitively look upon poorly.

That is, however, exactly what’s happened amid the deadly and disruptive global health crisis of the past thirteen months, as for-profit pharmaceutical giants have effectively made themselves synonymous with vaccinations for COVID-19 — carrying out a Kleenex-like coup that has seen companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca transform into well-regarded household names, fodder for viral memes, and, for some, literal saviors of the human race.

It’s an unprecedented PR victory for an industry that ranked as America’s most hated overall as recently as 2019 (Big Pharma then elicited more antipathy than oil and gas, for-profit health care, or even the federal government according to Gallup polling). More importantly, it’s an odious symptom of the extent to which our collective response to one of the worst global crises since the Second World War has been cannibalized by a handful of private companies and the profit motive that animates them. If the pandemic’s early months made ubiquitous the language of social solidarity and pulling together, those following the actual development of the various vaccines have since made it tragically clear that the structures of global capitalism are suffocating our capacity to act cooperatively for the common good.

Big Pharma’s monopoly over vaccines, of course, is something more than symbolic. Companies are currently hoarding their patents, refusing to share expertise and information that could dramatically expedite the production and distribution of doses to those who need them — even as people die, untold millions anxiously await a return to normalcy, and extra manufacturing capacity sits idle. Whatever noxious spin their PR departments and apologists may spew to the contrary, the reason is plain and simple corporate greed: Western pharma giants standing to lose unimaginable profits if patents are universalized and made available to anyone with the resources and know-how to manufacture vaccines. As science writer Stephen Buranyi recently put it:

There will be no “People’s Vaccine” emerging from any of these firms. It isn’t that the coronavirus vaccines are especially valuable. They are a big bump for a few firms: Pfizer predicts it will take in an extra $15bn this year, but its 2019 revenue was already a healthy $52bn. It’s that the system itself is too valuable. The principle of locking out low-cost competition is just too precious to compromise. Even for coronavirus.

The upshot, as Buranyi reported last weekend, is that far too few vaccines are being produced and roughly half of the 430 million manufactured this year have gone to the wealthiest 16 percent of the world’s population (many poorer nations are not expected to achieve effective vaccination levels for at least another two years).

Spurred by their insatiable hunger for profit and enabled by governments captive to their vast lobbying operations, a handful of pharmaceutical companies have been allowed to monopolize both the vaccine market and the popular narrative around the pandemic itself: deceptively reframing primal self-interest as compassion and private industry as public messiah. It would be unethical even if the R&D departments at each company had single-handedly innovated their way to the invention of a vaccine; given the critical role both public money and publicly funded scientific research played at every stage of vaccine development, it’s nothing short of immoral.

An important campaign including many former heads of government is currently pushing the Biden administration to heed calls from countries like India and South Africa for at least the temporary suspension of patents. With any luck it will succeed, and the inadequate global response will give way to one more like the efforts that transformed polio from a deadly disease into a rare condition and smallpox into a historical footnote. Either way, people looking back on this moment a hundred years from now will wonder why it was that humanity allowed the market to take ownership of a pandemic affecting every corner of the globe — or how a handful of brands associated with the very industry most responsible for prolonging the crisis came to be celebrated as saviors rather than condemned as villains.