The Only Way to End the Pandemic

August 9, 2021  

Last week Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene drew cheers at a Republican fundraiser when she praised Alabama for having the lowest vaccination rate in the US.

The more the Covid-19 virus spreads, the more it will mutate, producing variant strains. Inevitably, some of those variants will totally elude the existing vaccines. No wall, no travel bans, no isolationist policies will keep them out of the US —even if all our Marjories decide to get vaccinated.

The list of “Variants of Concern” on The New York Times’s “Corona Variant Tracker” as of June read like the Racing Form: “Alpha B emerged in Britain in December; thought to be roughly 50 percent more infectious. Now dominant in the US…. Beta B Emerged in South Africa in December. Reduces the effectiveness of some vaccines… Gamma P emerged in Brazil in late 2020. Has mutations similar to Beta B… Delta B: Prevalent in India. Carries the L452R spike mutation, among others.”

The Delta variant was coming up fast on the rail. It spreads faster than previous versions of the virus. It can infect vaccinated people, and though they’re less likely to need intensive care, they can infect others. According to the August 6 CDC Morbidity and Mortality Report, among 469 Covid-19 patients diagnosed in Provincetown, Massachusetts, 75% had been vaccinated previously.

“The current level of U.S. infection has already outstripped the pandemic’s initial April 2020 surge,” according to another piece in the Times. “By late last week, the seven-day average of new U.S. cases had increased nearly sevenfold from June, reaching 66,000 on July 28. Evidence from earlier in the pandemic indicates that cases are followed within a few weeks by an increase in deaths, which have risen in the seven-day average from 100 to 200 in early July to nearly 400 late in the month.”

This is the “teaching moment” of all time. It’s one world.

There used to be a Coca Cola commercial in which starry-eyed young people crooned, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company. That’s the real thing.” The Biden-Harris Administration doesn’t have to buy the world a shot in order to stop the inevitable arrival of new variants in the US. All they have to do is lift their patent protection. That would be the real thing.

Pfizer has already made a killing on the pandemic. Sales of their vaccine in the first quarter of 2021 —$3.5 billion—meant $900 million in profit. Their initial sales forecast for the year, $15 billion, has been upped to $26 billion based on their current contracts, and they’re negotiating more.

“Vaccine developers have been trying to play down the financial upside,” noted Rebecca Robbins and Peter Goodman in the Times May 5.   Their piece did not play it down:

“As of mid-April, wealthy countries had secured more than 87 percent of the more than 700 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines dispensed worldwide, while poor countries had received only 0.2 percent, according to the World Health Organization. In wealthy countries, roughly one in four people has received a vaccine. In poor countries, the figure is one in 500.

“The company pledged to contribute up to 40 million doses to Covax, a multilateral partnership aimed at supplying vaccines to poor countries. That represents less than 2 percent of the 2.5 billion doses that Pfizer and its development partner, BioNTech, aim to produce this year.”

BTW, it was researchers at BioNTech, a Germany company, who developed the so-called “Pfizer vaccine.” In January 2020 they began designing a messenger RNA molecule with instructions for making a coronavirus protein (the well-known spike) to confound the virus. In March, BioNTech agreed to a partnership with Pfizer that enabled scaled-up research and enough product for a clinical trial in May.

As the Times pointed out, “BioNTech received substantial support from the German government in developing their joint vaccine. And taxpayer-funded research aided both companies: The National Institutes of Health patented technology that helped make Pfizer’s and Moderna’s so-called messenger RNA vaccines possible. BioNTech has a licensing agreement with the NIH. and Pfizer is piggybacking on that license.

“Pfizer has kept the profitability of its vaccine sales opaque… The vaccine is expected to keep generating significant revenue for Pfizer and BioNTech, especially because people are likely to need regular booster shots. Pfizer said on Tuesday that it expects its vaccine to generate $26 billion in revenue this year, up from its previous estimate of $15 billion. The company has been signing supply deals with governments for more shots to be delivered in the next few years, including options for Canada as far out as 2024.

Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, was quoted saying, “We believe that a durable demand for our Covid-19 vaccine —similar to that of the flu vaccines— is a likely outcome.” His salary last year was $21 million.

The Times piece concluded, “That could ultimately make the vaccine one of the best-selling pharmaceutical products ever. Pfizer’s cholesterol medicine, Lipitor, currently ranks No. 1, having brought in about $125 billion over 15 years.”

A Glimmer of Sanity

In October 2020, when Trump was still in office, India and South Africa proposed that the World Health Organization stop enforcing patent rights to enable worldwide production of effective medicines. According to the Lancet, rich countries led by the USA and the EU nixed the idea, claiming that “the IP system is required to incentivize new inventions of vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments, which might dry up in its absence. They dismiss the claim that IP is a barrier to access.”

The US position in WHO negotiations changed with Biden in the White House, and some kind of “limited waiver” is now being discussed in Geneva.  What led to the change  —this is a guess from 2700 miles away— is Jared Bernstein’s presence on Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers. Bernstein has co-authored papers with Dean Baker, a leading critic of stringent intellectual-property protections. Baker directs the Center for Economic Policy Research, on whose website he regularly exposes Big Pharma’s machinations and suggests sensible reforms. In recent posts he has argued eloquently for open-sourcing the relevant vaccine technology to avert the next disaster:

“It may be the case, as Pfizer and Moderna claim, that it will be possible to quickly design an effective mRNA vaccine against a new strain. But even in a best case scenario, where it takes just a few weeks to develop a new vaccine, it will still be many months before it can be tested, produced, and distributed to hundreds of millions of people across the country and billions across the world. In the meantime, we will be seeing a whole new round of infections and deaths, as well as trillions of dollars of lost economic output…

“The real question is whether we could be producing more vaccines, taking advantage of capacity not only in rich countries but in countries like India, Brazil, South Africa, Pakistan and other developing countries with potential manufacturing capacity.

“The logic of open-sourcing vaccines is that we would put the details of the manufacturing process for the vaccines on the web, allowing engineers around the world to study them as the basis for new facilities or converting existing ones. Ideally, the engineers for the Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and the rest (including the Chinese, Russian, and Indian vaccines) would also be available to conduct webinars and to provide in-person guidance…

“If vaccinating the world was treated as a real emergency, does anyone doubt something like this would happen? If GE or Lockheed had developed a new sonar in World War II that made it easier to detect German submarines, does anyone think we would just sit there and say that this is proprietary knowledge, and nothing can be done, if the companies chose not to share it with the government?

“In addition to sharing existing knowledge, open-sourcing the production process should also allow for innovations that would increase production. The official position of the industry is that they have mastered the process for manufacturing their vaccines and it cannot possibly be improved. This claim is absurd on its face.

“In February, Pfizer announced that it had discovered a way to cut its production time in half. Pfizer also discovered that its vaccine did not have to be super-frozen at temperatures of less than minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but instead could be stored in a normal freezer for up to two weeks. This makes a huge difference in transporting its vaccine, especially in developing countries. Pfizer also discovered that its standard vial contained enough material for six doses, rather than just five. As a result of this mistake, one sixth of the Pfizer vaccines were being thrown down the toilet for the first couple of months after it was approved.

“Given this history, it’s hard to believe that there is no way to further improve on the production processes of Pfizer or the other vaccine manufacturers. If engineers all around the world had the opportunity to inspect their methods, surely many would be able to come up with innovations that could speed up the production and distribution of vaccines.”

Retro Message

Open-sourcing the technology for producing vaccines would help the whole world, and the Administration doesn’t want to alienate America-First voters. But those voters are already alienated. There’s a good chance some of them could be won over by framing the situation as Big Pharma endangering US Americans by not sharing technology that US taxpayers paid them to develop. Plus it’s the truth.

Some of those populists have no love for the 1%. Earlier this year the New Yorker ran a long first-person piece by a reporter named Luke Mogelson, who had embedded himself in the mob that attacked the capitol Jan. 6. In the middle of his dismaying report, he noted that to many in the surging Yahoo movement, “The architects of the apocalypse are such ‘globalists’ as the Clintons, Bill Gates, and George Soros; their instruments are multinational institutions like the European Union, NATO, and the UN.”

Soros and the UN may have some redeeming features, but the point of view discerned by Mogelson suggests the basis for a conversation with rational people. As Sinead O’Connor once put it, “Fight the real enemy!”

The extended family has been so destroyed and material inequality between the generations is so extreme that millions of Americans can’t help coveting their elders’ property. On Perry Mason reruns and other TV shows aimed at geezers, smarmy Tom Selleck explains that a reverse mortgage is a win-win-win-win-win-win-win. Younger people watching this expensively produced, minute-long soft sell must think, “God, I hope grandma doesn’t let the bank take the house.” And some might think —as they forego wearing a mask in the name of freedom— “If granny dies, mom will get the house.”

At the supermarket where our friend E. works, a Marjorie told her she wasn’t getting vaccinated because “They put a chip in you.” E. shot back, “You already got a chip on you. It’s called your cell phone. And they got you to pay for it.”    —Fred Gardner

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at