Big Pharma

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAids and based in Uganda, is a leading advocate for just global distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine and for CTAP, the COVID-19 Transparency and Accountability Project. On a recent public call with Pfizer representatives, Winnie’s partners asked if the company would join CTAP to increase vaccine production and availability, to which the representative replied: “As a company, we continue to commit ourselves to look at all viable options that will continue to increase access to this vaccine.” – Photo: UNAids

by Barry Hermanson

I recently celebrated my 70th birthday and have been eligible to stand in line for the COVID vaccine for some time. Instead, I decided to wait until an appointment was available. My first vaccination was a few days ago. April 17 is my appointment for the second dose. 

President Biden’s goal is to make shots available to anyone who wants them by May 1. In California, vaccines will be available to everyone by the end of April. Several other states are already offering shots to everyone. Others are racing to do so. 

At the same time, the public is being warned of a potential surge in infections in April, just like parts of Europe are experiencing now. To stay safe, I will continue to wear a mask when outside my home until the number of infections is down, stays down and public health officials provide further advice. It may not be until much later this year when I feel comfortable going out of the house without a mask.

Good news

“Minnesota health officials reported no new deaths due to COVID-19 on Monday for the first time in nearly a year.” – from AP News: https://apnews.com/article/health-coronavirus-pandemic-minnesota-0841f2535c6d8fdb1b61ace13c2035d0.

In the last few days, four of my neighbors on the westside of San Francisco were vaccinated at a clinic in the Bayview. Word must have spread on social media that 400 doses were available to anyone. No neighborhood residency or age was required. They will receive their second doses a few days after mine.

Will the pandemic end in the near future? What then?

The US manufactures 25 percent of the vaccines in the world, but had yet to donate to another, less affluent country.

Big pharma doesn’t have a good reputation. The list of overpriced drugs is long; stories of people not being able to afford their medications are common. Profit is frequently more important to drug companies than saving lives. 

People in rich nations are getting vaccinated; poor nations are paying more than rich nations for vaccines. On a recent PBS news show, I learned the US manufactures 25 percent of the vaccines in the world, but had yet to donate to another, less affluent country. The pandemic will not be over until vaccines are available to everyone on earth. 

The cost of getting a shot? I paid nothing at the clinic. The federal government negotiated a price and paid for it. Could they have gotten a better price? Perhaps.

Big pharma makes a profit in countries that enjoy national health care – not an obscene profit. Because the US does not have national health care or the ability to negotiate for an entire population, drug companies make enormous profits. Campaign donations to politicians keep us from enjoying better healthcare at a lower cost. 

“Manuel Martin with the Doctors Without Borders Access campaign says smaller nations are at a disadvantage in negotiations with pharmaceutical companies for vaccines … He says a ‘vaccine apartheid’ is developing in which the rich get early access to doses and access to the most effective shots.” – from NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/02/19/969529969/price-check-nations-pay-wildly-different-prices-for-vaccines.

“A string of revelations about vaccine prices has focused attention on a practice considered normal in the drug industry but often frowned on elsewhere: charging different prices to different customers for the same product.

As the world emerges from the pandemic, nations should unite to get the best price for everyone on earth. This would be the first step to moving beyond the proven model of national health care. 

“The EU financially supported the development of the BioNTech and Pfizer vaccine and has obtained a lower price per dose ($14.70) than the US ($19.50). The Moderna vaccine’s development was subsidized by the US government, and it will cost the US about $15 a dose, while the EU is paying $18.”

“The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is much cheaper, although neither the UK nor the US can match the EU’s $2.15 deal. They are expecting to pay about $3 and $4, respectively, per dose.”

“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, expected to announce phase three results imminently, is also much cheaper, costing the EU $8.50, with each dose going twice as far as the other brands since it is a single shot vaccine.” – from the British Medical Journal: https://www.bmj.com/content/372/bmj.n281.

At least two of the drug manufacturers have stated they will supply doses at cost for the duration of the pandemic. Another reports a comfortable profit of 30 percent. After the pandemic? Countries without national health care will pay many times the current price. 

Mutations in the COVID virus may require booster shots, similar to what is recommended for the flu. Last year, the higher cost flu shot recommended for seniors wasn’t covered by Medicare at my pharmacy. Medicare, a program primarily covering seniors, paid for the shot recommended for younger people. We need an improved Medicare for All.

As the world emerges from the pandemic, nations should unite to get the best price for everyone on earth. This would be the first step to moving beyond the proven model of national health care. 

Affordable, high quality health care is a human right. It should be available to everyone on the planet. Big Pharma makes a small profit – or at least breaks even – when we join together to negotiate a price. When we don’t, only those who can pay receive vaccines. 

“But on this rare occasion, when we are all yoked to an invisible destroyer, it is my hope and plea that when the journal of this experience is written, it would deviate from what is mostly the norm and record that on this occasion, the rich took care of the poor – and the small and impecunious were not trampled with disdain by those who could have done so simply because they had the wherewithal to do it,” stated Prime Minister Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago.

“[Prime Minster Rowley] called for global vaccine distribution based on models of ‘sharing and caring,’ that provide equitable access to small countries like his and ‘benefit all humankind and not just the privileged, well-heeled few.’” – from NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/02/19/969529969/price-check-nations-pay-wildly-different-prices-for-vaccines.

National healthcare legislation update

A new and improved Medicare for All bill has been introduced in Congress by Rep. Pramila Jayapal. An improved Medicare for All will provide better health care for everyone in the US at a lower cost than we are paying now. More information on the bill is available here: https://jayapal.house.gov/2021/03/17/medicare-for-all/.

California update: Assembly Bill 1400 – Guaranteed Health Care for All – may receive its first hearing in committee on April 21. I will report on the hearing next month.

Barry Hermanson is a Green Party of California Coordinating Committee member, GPCA representative to Healthy California Now, a statewide coalition of organizations and activists dedicated to establishing a single-payer Medicare For All system in California, and a former small business owner. Contact him at Barry@Hermansons.com or 415-255-9494 or write to him via the Bay View.