TTo understand why billionaires are a sign of moral and economic failure, look no further than the Covid-19 pandemic.
Pharmaceutical companies could earn $ 190 billion of Covid-19 vaccine sales this year. Pharmaceutical profits have hit nine new pandemic billionaires, and helped eight existing billionaires expand their fortunes. Several of them are founders and private investors of three pharmaceutical companies – Moderna, BioNTech and CureVac – whose vaccines use mRNA technology largely developed from publicly funded research.
Their financial wealth offers a disturbing contrast to vaccine apartheid. At the end of May, alone 0.3% of all vaccine doses worldwide have been administered in low-income countries.
Faced with the condemnation for hoarding doses, the G-7 countries, which are meeting this weekend in England, are under pressure to launch a new plan to expand vaccination against Covid-19 globally. A very controversial question is whether they will call for mandatory sharing of mRNA vaccine technologies, including a proposed exemption intellectual property rights of Covid-19 technologies.
Pandemic billionaires are speak against government intervention, warning it would undermine innovation and saying their companies can meet global demand for Covid-19 vaccines.
Because the public sector was largely responsible for developing mRNA technology and sharing it with businesses, the pandemic fortunes of these founders and investors contrast starkly and disgustingly against the billions of unvaccinated people.
Moderna, BioNTech and CureVac are each led by long-time founders or executives with a key role in the decision-making of the company: Stéphane Bancel is the CEO of Moderna, Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin are the co-founders of BioNTech and Franz-Werner Haas is the CEO of CureVac. In addition to having a head start on publicly funded research, these companies also relied on private investments provided through venture capital or family offices (private companies that manage the investment and wealth management for wealthy families). Venture capitalists include Flagship Pioneering, a Boston-based company whose founder, Noubar Afeyan, also serves as a Moderna chair, and MIG SA, a German venture capital firm that made early investments in BioNTech. The other big investors in BioNTech and CureVac were German family offices, including investments of Dietmar hopp in CureVac and the Struengmann brothers in BioNTech.
Founders, executives, venture capitalists and family offices all held substantial stakes in all three mRNA companies as the pandemic approached. Everyone had a choice at the start of the pandemic: maximize profits or maximize global production of low-cost vaccines.
The three companies chose profit maximization, partnerships with multinational companies or partnerships with a few contract manufacturers. This year, these companies will have sold almost all of their limited supply of vaccines to rich countries at high prices.
Instead, they could have chosen to avoid scarcity and hoarding by sharing technology, know-how, and intellectual property with other manufacturers, thereby expanding and decentralizing production. It wouldn’t be as if they were giving away their intellectual property for free: sharing would allow these companies to earn royalties and profits.
A year ago, the World Health Organization launched the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (CTAP) to facilitate the sharing of intellectual property, knowledge, data and know-how towards a common pool that could be used by manufacturers around the world to expand the supply of Covid-19 vaccines. For now, the pool remains empty. Vaccine production remains tightly controlled, highly concentrated and insufficient on the scale of needs.
This failure to share vaccine revenue and processes may have undermined global immunization efforts, but it has benefited founders and investors alike. Since the WHO declared the Covid-19 pandemic a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020, the share price of Moderna and BioNTech have increased tenfold and eightfold, respectively, while CureVac’s share price has nearly doubled since its IPO in August 2020.
With stock prices soaring, executives, founders and investors sold millions of stocks, some becoming paper billionaires. In just two months in 2020, Abeyan shares sold totaling $ 1.5 billion. The Struengmann brothers added a estimated at $ 8 billion to their wealth in 2020, while MIG AG, first investors in BioNTech, pocketed $ 719 million.
When these companies did not act responsibly, governments should have intervened. After all, governments (and philanthropic organizations) have invested heavily in the development of mRNA technology and Covid-19 vaccines. The mRNA technology itself is based on decades of publicly funded research; a key university researcher, Katalin kariko, now works at BioNTech. The lipid nanoparticle, an essential ingredient in mRNA vaccines, arises from publicly funded research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Robert Langer, who was co-founder of Moderna. the pre-fusion peak protein used in mRNA vaccines was developed by researchers at the National Institutes of Health Vaccine Research Center and Dartmouth College.
In addition, governments, foundations and agencies have contributed over $ 100 billion for the development and manufacture of medical countermeasures, including vaccines. The German government now has a 23% of the capital of CureVac thanks to an investment of 300 million euros.
Yet despite this substantial public subsidy, companies have not been required to share knowledge and promote equitable access. The Gates Foundation and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) bond withdrawal make vaccines available and affordable based on pre-pandemic contracts signed with CureVac. The NIH does not exerted his influence to accelerate the global manufacture of the Moderna vaccine. Incredibly, Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, who himself had the power to negotiate the conditions of access in his contracts with multinational pharmaceutical companies, recently declared that the “big missed opportunity of 2020, I would even say the tragedy” of the pandemic was that vaccine development donors did not include access provisions with funding.
Even if investors and founders cash in, the world is not reaching an exit ramp from the pandemic. More than 10,000 people die every day and low-income countries could wait decades be fully vaccinated, even if companies plan booster doses and variations for rich countries to protect themselves against mutations that occur in unvaccinated populations.
The G-7 must take action to support and adopt an intellectual property waiver, invest in global manufacturing, share doses equitably (a G-7 announcement of a donation of 1 billion doses is good news but is ultimately neither sufficient nor sustainable) and obliges companies to share their know-how. Founders and investors were allowed to turn the course of the pandemic to their private advantage. When a few people win big, everyone loses.
Rohit Malpani is a public health consultant based in Paris, France, and a member of the board of directors of Unitaid, a global health initiative that works with partners in low- and middle-income countries.