‘Cry No Tears for These Death Profiteers’: Pharma Stocks Plunge as Biden Backs Vaccine Patent Waiver

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Yves here. I wish I could be enthusiastic about Biden saying he would support a waiver of Big Pharma Covid vaccine patents. After all, we’ve been pumping for this measure for some time, albeit mainly through the posts of Jomo Kwame Sundaram, who has written that the much of the Global South would not get vaccines until 2023 on the current schedule, and even then, in many cases, at higher prices than the Global North.

However, if you look at various press stories on this plan, you’ll see two things. One is the abject falsehood that these supposedly backwards countries would have trouble making the vaccines, especially the novel (in terms of large scale use in humans) mRNA vaccines. Microbiology prof KLG debunked that via e-mail:

It is complete and utter bullshit that, off the top of my head, India, Indonesia, possibly Singapore, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea, China, New Zealand, Mexico, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Cuba cannot manufacture these vaccines. There are undoubtedly other countries that can do it, too. This is routine molecular biology and pharmaceutical manufacture, albeit on a large scale, not the biological equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. All any of these people need are the instructions and help with components. Would it take a serious effort on their part? No more than here and Europe.

The second issue is that getting the waivers looks like it will take an ungodly amount of time and may not happen. I wonder if there was a more expeditious US-only route, like requiring vaccine makers to produce a certain number at cost under the War Production Act….or at least as an interim measure while the WTO process drags on? From the Wall Street Journal:

Overriding objections from the pharmaceutical industry, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the U.S. would support a proposal working its way through the World Trade Organization. Such a policy would waive the IP rights of vaccine makers to potentially enable companies in developing countries and others to manufacture their own versions of Covid-19 vaccines….

Pharmaceutical companies, however, oppose it, saying the waiver won’t provide the short-term results proponents think it will, partly because of the challenge of setting up complex new production facilities to manufacture the vaccines…..

Ms. Tai also warned that the talks at the WTO to approve a waiver policy will take time, given the consensus-based nature of the group, but that the U.S. will actively participate in negotiations…

The current WTO agreement—the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS—was introduced in 1995 upon the birth of the WTO itself, providing patent protection to technological innovations, including drugs and vaccines.

Support by the U.S. for the temporary waiver doesn’t mean it will be approved at the WTO, an organization that makes decisions by consensus among members. The European Union, the U.K., Switzerland, Japan and Brazil are among the countries that opposed the original proposal offered by South Africa and India in October.

In fact, cynically I wonder if the US hasn’t already counted noses at the WTO, knows the votes aren’t there, and will quietly reassure big drugmakers privately that this was all a gesture that the Administration knew was destined to fail.

By Jake Johnson, staff writer at Common Dreams. Originally published at Common Dreams

Stocks of major pharmaceutical corporations plummeted Wednesday after the Biden administration announced its support for a coronavirus vaccine patent waiver, a measure that would free vaccine recipes from Big Pharma’s stranglehold and help enable generic manufacturers to ramp up global production.

As CNBC reported, shares in Pfizer, BioNTech, Novavax, and Moderna fell to “session lows” after the Biden White House endorsed the waiver—a potentially seismic move that came after weeks of tireless campaigning by progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups.

Canada, European Union member nations, the United Kingdom, and other wealthy countries remain opposed to the waiver, leaving the chances of consensus approval at the World Trade Organization highly uncertain.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration’s support for the waiver spooked investors and infuriated the pharmaceutical industry, which has been lobbying hard against the proposal in an effort to preserve its immensely profitable monopoly control over vaccine production.

“Cry no tears for these death profiteers,” environmentalist and author Naomi Klein tweeted in response to a CNBCgraphic showing the major sell-off of pharma shares on Wednesday.

“It’s almost as if the financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry are diametrically opposed to the health and well-being of the planet,” added consumer watchdog Public Citizen, part of a broad coalition of global civil society groups that has been pushing U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders to back the patent waiver for months.

The Financial Times reported Thursday morning that the Biden administration’s decision to back the temporary intellectual property waiver—which South Africa and India first introduced at the WTO in October—”prompted instant outrage in the pharmaceutical sector.”

“Shares in the big makers of Covid-19 vaccines were hit by the announcement,” FT noted. “Frankfurt-listed shares in BioNTech lost 14 percent on Thursday. Moderna and Novavax closed down by between 3 percent and 6 percent in New York the day before.”

Warren Gunnels, staff director for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said Wednesday that “after taxpayers paid Pfizer, BioNTech, Novavax, and Moderna $13.5 billion for Covid-19 vaccines, seven executives at these firms became billionaires and are now worth $17.2 billion.”

“No one should have gotten wealthy off of these vaccines,” Gunnels added. “They belong to the people, not billionaires.”

Allowing a handful of pharmaceutical companies to dictate global supply of life-saving coronavirus vaccines has been disastrous for much of the developing world, which has struggled to obtain and administer doses after profit-seeking drugmakers sold most of their early production to wealthy countries.

Now, as cities in rich nations accelerate their reopenings amid stagnant or falling case counts, skyrocketing infections in developing countries such as India, Brazil, and Thailand are pushing global case counts to a new peak, intensifying calls for sweeping action to boost vaccine production and distribution.

While insufficient to solve global production shortages on its own, India and South Africa’s patent waiver would lift a key legal barrier that’s preventing manufacturers around the world from copying existing vaccine recipes and mass-producing generic versions.

“In the many months since this waiver was first proposed, we could have produced many hundreds of millions more vaccines,” Nick Dearden, director of the London-based advocacy group Global Justice Now, said in a statement Wednesday. “Let’s get moving.”

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  1. ChrisFromGeorgia

    “Cry no tears for these death profiteers”. My, how the lady knows how to turn a phrase. I’m borrowing that one.

    I wonder why CEO’s of industries heavily dependent on international travel have not gotten on board with the IP/patent waivers. It’s not in their interest to have entire swaths of the globe off limits due to a “stew of variants” and shut down borders. Right now Canada, Chile, India and Brazil are practically verbotten for any kind of non-life saving travel. This cannot be good for their bottom lines, talking to you Delta, American airlines.

    Of course, the airline industry has its’ own death profiteers in Boeing. it’s almost as if they are showing professional courtesy in not speaking up.

    1. tegnost

      “it’s almost as if they are showing professional courtesy in not speaking up.”

      It’s almost like they’re all in the same union and won’t cross picket lines


      this will solve nothing the problem is in actually making the vaccines they don’t have the capacity or the raw materials. I know this makes you feel good to trash capitalism, but it is only because of capitalism that we have the vaccines.

      1. TomDority

        Sounds like a couple of unfounded assertions.
        If they don’t have capacity or raw materials … I would say that is due to capitalism and it is due to research outside of the pharmacutical industry – acedemic research – government research that enabled the vaccines to which the pharma are capitalizing

      2. Yves Smith Post author

        Did you not read the post? The Global South has the capacity.

        The question is the inputs. I am asking KLG.

        The industry has been greatly exaggerating the tech know-how required. Would not surprise me at all to learn that they’ve also greatly exaggerated the difficulty of getting key inputs.

      3. tegnost

        we live in a market based society that is heavy on socialism for the rich. Calling us a capitalist country is an overly broad generalization

    3. Stephen Gardner

      I’m thinking that the movers and shakers in the travel industry don’t understand the problem. It is out of their wheelhouse so to speak.

  2. Matthew G. Saroff

    BTW, Cory Docterow has an analysis, and it shows that mRNA technology allows you to put a vaccine factory in a closet: (Warning swearing at link)

    * New facilities will be 99–99.9% smaller than conventional vaccine facilities
    * They will be 95–99.7% cheaper than conventional vaccine facilities
    * You could use a single room in a conventional vaccine factory to make more vaccine doses of mRNA vaccines than the entire output of the rest of the factory
    * New vaccines can be made 1,000% faster than previous vaccines

  3. Ben Dalton

    “In fact, cynically I wonder if the US hasn’t already counted noses at the WTO, knows the votes aren’t there, and will quietly reassure big drugmakers privately that this was all a gesture that the Administration knew was destined to fail.”

    Your cynicism may be well justified.

    “Based on what we’ve seen, we believe that a durable demand for our COVID-19 vaccine – similar to that of
    the flu vaccines – is a likely outcome.” — Pfizer CEO’s remarks on a quarterly earnings presentation.

    Source: https://s21.q4cdn.com/317678438/files/doc_financials/2021/q1/Q1-2021-Earnings-Conference-Call-Prepared-Remarks-FINAL.pdf

    The vaccine padded Pfizer’s revenues by 3.5 billion dollars, and it expects 26 billions in 2021. I doubt they would let this money go that easily.

    Their contribution dollars are already at work.

    IP waiver on humanitarian principles is a massive red flag for Capitalist profiteers. The same logic can be extended to waive IP for GM food and renewables technology, which are also needed for solving big problems like hunger and climate change. This sets a precedent that will upend the very basis of the Big Industry moneymaking. They cannot fight this openly for PR reasons, but expect them to obfuscate the issue by making “donations” to developed countries and whatnot.

    And about the stock selloff, I wonder which WH insider(s) in the know picked up money/cheap stock from that fall. We will never know, but I can say with almost certainty that it happened. (My cynicism meter is registering an all time high today)

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Has Mexico thought of counter-suing Bayer under the RICO act or equivalents?

        Have franken-free corn growers within Mexico thought of somehow reaching the Hipster-Foodie market within the US and Canada to see if more Hipster Foodies can be recruited to the concept of buying franken-free corn and/or corn products from Mexico grown with genuine legacy artisan corn varieties? That might begin to recruit a “natural lobbying force” into existence for use against Bayer in this matter.

  4. Dr. John Carpenter

    “In fact, cynically I wonder if the US hasn’t already counted noses at the WTO, knows the votes aren’t there, and will quietly reassure big drugmakers privately that this was all a gesture that the Administration knew was destined to fail.”

    Shades of “the Parliamentarian says we can’t” possibly? Like you, I’m very cynical about this, especially as it was such an abrupt change of policy. I think you may be on to something here.

    1. Tom Stone

      Dr Carpenter, I don’t think either you or Yves is being cynical by considering the proposal to waive Vaccine patents to be virtue signaling.
      And a fundraising exercise.
      It’s a realistic appreciation of how things work and how much influence $26,000,000,000.00 brings with it.
      I would it were different.

      1. Skip Intro

        One politician’s fundraising exercise is another pharma CEO’s shakedown: ‘Nice IP monopoly youse got here, it would be a shame if anything were to happen to it’

  5. Doc Octagon

    From someone I know with professional experience manufacturing pharmaceuticals in India, the patents are not what prevents local manufacturing of the covid vaccine. Part of ensuring efficacy is knowing what the molecule is, the vat of nucleotides from which it came, and the enzymatic process that creates the mRNA strands. The fermentation apparatus designs are available open-source and the WHO is ready to assist developing nations with license-free tech.

    What prevents local manufacture of the vaccine is the lack of facilities that can create a safe and consistent formula in the numbers necessary. India’s cost of creating these facilities from scratch exceeds the cost of purchasing the vaccines from the pharma companies. Indian-nationals working for Indian companies who have the practical knowledge to create a clinically safe vaccine are either already working at Indian-owned facilities in the West cranking out generic pharmaceuticals, and their active ingredients, in the largest markets where clinical trials are the most difficult. Or they are in Mumbai working for a subsidiary of Pfizer. It is not like India doesn’t have its own multi-national pharmaceutical companies with their own interests inside the Modi admin, downplaying the crisis, not the least of which is to be the exclusive manufacturer of a proprietary vaccine.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Please clarify your statement “the fermentation apparatus designs are available open-source.” Do the mRNA vaccines, and or the DNA+virus shell vaccines use a fermentation apparatus?

      1. Isotope_C14

        Also, in that link I shared, they talk about using an enzyme to cut a plasmid. Plasmids are extracted by killing all the e.coli and binding the DNA to a column. Then you cut it with a restriction enzyme.

        Here’s an example of an extremely common one: BamHI


        These enzymes are amazing, and NEB is one of the most common suppliers. So this particular one *only* cuts between 2 G’s separated by TWO A/T pairs. If there are 3 AT pairs, it won’t cut.

        If you look at their complete product listing, there are hundreds of individual enzymes that recognize specific sites, and they are highly specific.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          Thank you! Your links were very helpful to me. Although I remain a little leery of the mRNA vaccines, in light of the peculiar way they were Warp Speed made available — the technology they represent appears very exciting.

          1. Isotope_C14

            My pleasure Jeremy!

            I’m not so leery of the vaccines as they were all in the research-tier pipeline, I’m leery of the virus. It’s mutating far faster than we can implement any “spike protein” domains… That article regarding the Seychelles here on NC earlier points this out. I think the re-infection rate would be about the same with the mRNA vaccines, had they used those. I suspect the virus will always be 2 steps ahead, and the vaccines that are generally available will be for strains that are no longer predominant.

            It’s unfortunate that we don’t teach Genetic Engineering at the high school level in the US. It’s incredibly easy, and almost all of it is in kits. Currently it is 98% easier to extract plasmid with a kit, than it is to make a great meal from scratch.

            Here’s a high-end plasmid kit, and there are certainly cheaper options:


            The nice thing about clicking on these links, is that you should get very interesting ads taking over your browser space. Haha.

            1. Jeremy Grimm

              Thank you again! I am glad to hear that Genetic Engineering is incredibly easy, and available in kits like the one you pointed to. I will try to learn more. In addition to its uses in medicine I strongly suspect Humankind will require such knowledge to adjust agriculture and local plant life as the Climate Chaos builds. I just downloaded several of the pdf files from the resources page at Qiagen and bookmarked the site.

              Regarding your concerns about the mutation rates of the Corona spike assembly — which I share — I start to wonder whether the spike assembly is the best antigen target.

    2. DavidofAlaska

      There is however a large brand new facility in Bangladesh currently available.

  6. A.

    Particularly odious has been what I call the “Gates defense” of Moderna profiteer Bancel, saying the waivers would change nothing in the production numbers of the vaccine… in the short-term. That’s the good thing about it: Since it is tautological to say nothing changes in the short-term, you can use it to justify any defense of the status quo.

  7. John Wright

    If this is true “Pharmaceutical companies, however, oppose it, saying the waiver won’t provide the short-term results proponents think it will, partly because of the challenge of setting up complex new production facilities to manufacture the vaccines” why are the pharmaceutical companies opposed?

    From a public relations standpoint, the pharmaceutical companies could simply allow a time limited waiver to be publicly instituted and quietly sit back and watch the time limited waiver period fail to produce valid vaccines.

    That pharma stocks fell, indicates that the financial industry DOES believe that a temporary waiver will produce results.

    1. Michaelmas

      That pharma stocks fell, indicates that the financial industry DOES believe that a temporary waiver will produce results.

      What makes you think people in finance are smart enough to have an accurate understanding of, firstly, mRNA synthesis and, secondly, of the micro-technology that makes the microfluidics technology — the tools that make the tools — that in turn produces the lipid nanoparticles that carry the synthesized RNA?

    2. Thuto

      Here in South Africa, Aspen Pharmacare, which already has an agreement with J&J to package its vaccine, just confirmed in an official statement that they have the sterile capacity to manufacture 300 million vaccines once the necessary formulae are transferred. Cue the “yeah but supplies are the real constraints not manufacturing capacity” rebuttals.

  8. Jeremy Grimm

    I believe Biden will deliver a waiver of Big Pharma Corona vaccine patents shortly after he delivers to the US Populace his infrastructure and education bills; $15 minimum wage; $2000 stimulus checks; American Jobs Plan and “millions of good paying jobs – jobs Americans can raise their families on”; lower deductibles and prescription drug costs in the Affordable Care Act; “corporate subsidies and tax incentives he proposes as a solution to the climate crisis will do nothing to halt oil and gas fracking, shut down coal-fired plants or halt the construction of new pipelines for gas-fired power plants.” [list stolen from the first paragraph of Chris Hedges latest essay].

    I think the above email statement from Microbiology prof KLG combined with information in the link the other day to: “Rapid development and deployment of high-volume vaccines for pandemic response” — raises disturbing questions. I begin wondering why US Big Pharma has had trouble ramping up their production of vaccines after receiving generous financial support from the US Government. I wonder why Big Pharma needed such a fat carrot to encourage development of Corona vaccines. Instead of a waiver why can’t Big Pharma just ramp up their US production and provide vaccines at ‘true’ cost — considering their the development and equipment capitalization were largely paid for by the US government, either directly or indirectly through guaranteed sales at a preset price if they delivered a successful product. When I suppose the efficacy of Ivermectin, masks, and old school Public Health practices, and the arrivals of old school vaccines … I wonder whether the mRNA or DNA+virus shell vaccines are so very much better for use in many countries, particularly in view of their storage and handling requirements. I suspect there may be other reasons besides the Corona pandemic for interest in the technology. The patents, processes, and process secrets for making mRNA or DNA+virus vaccines are thought to be extremely valuable for their potential applications developing treatments for a wide range of diseases.[“The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race”, https://www.statnews.com/2020/11/10/the-story-of-mrna-how-a-once-dismissed-idea-became-a-leading-technology-in-the-covid-vaccine-race/ ]

  9. Hemanth Kumar

    “In fact, cynically I wonder if the US hasn’t already counted noses at the WTO, knows the votes aren’t there, and will quietly reassure big drugmakers privately that this was all a gesture that the Administration knew was destined to fail.”

    It is not your cynicism but your subconscious mind telling the truth or rather the reality.

  10. David B Harrison

    I think a big question here is how well do the vaccines work? I’m having my usual terrible Kentucky spring allergy season problems and decided to get my steroid treatment from my local clinic and was met with exactly the same protocols as during the height of covid-19.Except this time I had to do telehealth first. I was informed when I began this process that 4 people had received vaccinations and then became ill with covid-19.So the clinic was understandably paranoid. This is in a small rural clinic so 4 is a lot statistically. With so many authorities acting in bad faith(save the economy but not the working class and elderly)where are you to turn for the truth.

  11. TimH

    “Pharma Stocks Plunge”

    Just looked, and don’t seem to have plunged.

    PFE is at 39 vs 34 in March.

  12. Edward

    I don’t understand why countries can’t just use the Russian and Chinese vaccines.

  13. Bill Smith

    Didn’t Moderna say last year they would not enforce their patent on thier Covid vaccine? Nor their patents on the buildup to make the vaccine? That was back in October, 2020? Has anyone taken them up on that?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Lowe can fuck off. The vaccine makers ALREADY got a massive subsidy for these damned experimental vaccines in the form of liability waivers.

      They do not have a right to profit. They should be regulated as utilities.

      Pharma is so profitable that it spends more on marketing than on R&D (and that is with attributing every overhead they can to R&D). They can afford all-the-time TV ads (I must hear 6 an hour in the background). They can afford in-person selling to individual doctors (and that’s before getting to all the ways they manipulate doctors to prescribe more, like their about-as-honest-as-economics-op-eds “research”). The subsidies are so large they should not be public companier.

      First, drugmakers get additional subsidies that are massive across their entire businesses. They don’t do basic research. The NIH and other government agencies do. That alone is estimated to account for over 1/3 of the imputed cost of drug development.

      Second, they get to license government-developed IP for free. That is the applied research, as in in addition to the basic research.

      Don’t get me started on special tax breaks or them hiding from the tax man by putting the IP in Ireland and paying super low taxes.

      1. run75441

        Good Morning Yves:

        Added Information

        Yes on Pharma being granted waivers, short cutting trials, and subsidies. Upton’s 21st Century Cures Act pushed all three along quite a bit. Liability is lessened also. Both Upton and Congresswoman DeGette have been taking bows on this legislation and citing the lessening of time to bring a drug to market. Which is good; but, they already had ways to do such.

        Cuba appears to be close to having their own Covid drug(s). Not sure why Biden has not restored what Obama initiated with Cuba and trump took away. It appears the island country has come a long way since 1970 when I was stationed there. Guardian, “Cuba punches above its weight” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/04/cuba-covid-vaccines to develop its own Covid vaccines. Brazil is producing the Sputnik V vaccine (not sure of its efficacy or the others for that matter).

        Costs and resulting profits are always something of a question. What many of the medical companies are going to is value – methodology in putting a price on a drug. Rituxan is an old drug which is priced at $93 a molecule. Infusions are $28,000 list (Medicare knocks it down to ~7,000). If they discover new usage for it, they increase the pricing. The ICER reviews pricing increases and rules on whether it is justified or not. It did rule against the 17% increase in wholesale price for Rituxan and Humira’s increase also.

  14. David Mills

    The Global South / NAM have to extract a price for not sharing vaccine IP. Either in debt repudiation or asset seizure. The Golden Rule of international relations remains reciprocity.

    Tit for tat
    Butter for fat
    Kill my dog
    And I’ll slay your cat

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