Big Pharma and Omicron

So now we have an Omicron variant. Named for the 15th letter of the 24-letter Greek alphabet. Meaning we’re going to run out of letters soon at the rate new coronavirus variants are arising. We don’t know much about the new one yet other than that the press is reporting that it arose in South Africa (which isn’t the whole story since scientists first spotted it in Botswana, according to Nature) and it’s thought to be more easily transmissible than other variants. Scientists expect to have Omicron figured out in a few weeks, but it’s already spreading around the world. If a new vaccine is required to blunt the new variant’s impact, it will take months for the huge pharmaceutical corporations that control global vaccine production to release it in wealthy countries like the US and over a year for it to even start to show up in poor countries.

And that’s the biggest problem we’re facing in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic: Private enterprise is not capable of dealing with a global health crisis. Because big pharmas are built to focus on markets that make the most profit for their investors. Yet only a small fraction of the world’s nations are wealthy enough to be profitable markets even for products as desperately needed as good coronavirus vaccines. So companies like Pfizer, Cambridge’s own Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson compete with each other by developing rival vaccines, then fight for market share in wealthy countries, and ignore the rest of the world other than donating smallish fractions of their total vaccine output to poor countries.

Worse still, these multinationals then refuse to open up their quickly patented vaccine research to the world for free—preventing poor countries from being able to work with the World Health Organization and rich nations to produce enough doses to cover every person on the planet that needs one.

In fact, Moderna is playing an even nastier legal game in the very nation currently being blamed for the rise of the Omicron variant. According to the UK’s Evening Standard newspaper, “South Africa recently granted Moderna several far-reaching patents on mRNA technology that could potentially undermine efforts to get a new COVID-19 vaccine off the assembly line”—notably one being developed for use around Africa by the Antiviral Gene Therapy Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg with help from the WHO. Thus not only are pharmaceutical companies hoarding medical knowledge that should be freely available to nations around the world, they’re also trying to game the system to prevent anyone else from being able to duplicate that knowledge in the interest of global public health.

Which certainly bears closer scrutiny from nonprofit watchdogs, government regulators, and news organizations like the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and DigBoston.

But what really needs wider discussion and debate is the idea that private interests should be allowed to profit from responses to global public health crises like the coronavirus pandemic.

When a hero of mine, journalist Edward R. Murrow, asked another hero of mine, Nobel Prize-winning virologist Dr. Jonas Salk, if he had patented his world historic polio vaccine, he said, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” And so, the deadly and long-dreaded disease polio was basically wiped from the face of the Earth in a few years. Because Salk put people before profits.

What was true in the 1950s, remains true today. If we want to defeat a global threat like the coronavirus pandemic, we need a strong global response focused on vaccinating as many of Earth’s multitudes as we can as fast as we can. That militates toward banning pharmaceutical corporations from being allowed to patent their vaccine research—which is largely based on publicly-funded basic science research. Public investment thus becomes private profit … with few if any strings attached.

In a better world, when a pharma like Moderna “partnered” with Dr. Anthony Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop its coronavirus vaccine last year, it should have been forced to release the final product out of patent in exchange for access to government-sponsored research data and a sweetheart vaccine production deal with the US government (resulting in a cool two-and-a-half billion of federal cash courtesy of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, according to Politifact). As it stands, Fauci and the Biden administration are now fighting Moderna’s July US patent application for its COVID vaccine and demanding that the company share the patent with the National Institutes of Health—the parent agency of the NIAID—according to CBS.

But that still allows a private company to hold a patent on a desperately needed vaccine. And points away from the road we should have travelled. Moderna and all pharmas worldwide should have been enjoined to work together to develop a suite of vaccines that wealthy nations could have paid to produce in sufficient quantities to immediately distribute to the entire global population at speed.

Had we gone the public vaccine production route and made sure vaccines were available everywhere early on, then we would have likely already stopped the coronavirus pandemic in its tracks—even allowing for vaccine “hesitancy” by 20-30% of the world’s population.

Instead, according to Our World in Data, as of this writing just “54.1% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.” While “[o]nly 5.7% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.”

Given that most major coronavirus vaccines require two doses to be fully effective, it should be obvious that the majority of people are yet not properly protected from the dominant Delta strain of the coronavirus. And as waves of COVID infection continue to buffet humanity, the virus is going to continue mutating into new variants for years to come before we finally beat the pandemic.

So millions more will die on top of the other millions that already died needlessly since effective vaccines have been developed. All because we’ve allowed rich investors to privatize public health initiatives in their endless quest to fatten their bottom lines.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging and more pandemics expected in the years to come, societies across the globe need to rethink how we handle public health crises in the public interest. Starting right here in the US.

Because the alternative is a perpetual series of pandemics. As the world burns from global warming.

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston and executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.