If there is one thing that the COVID-19 second wave has done to India, apart from the grotesque optics of people dying gasping, families of the dead struggling to cremate them or corpses flowing in the Ganges, is that it has spiked the demand for COVID-19 vaccines. With an acute shortage of COVID-19 vaccines in India, where two variants of the virus are detected, the pharmaceutical giants are now making a kill. It’s an issue all key players, the government, the drug-regulatory bodies, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the mainstream press are hiding in the closet.
How are the global pharmaceutical giants profiteering from the COVID-19 crisis?
Reports say that the US pharmaceuticals major Pfizer has earned $3.5bn between January and March 2021 aided by large-scale vaccine sales. Pfizer, unlike a few major pharmaceutical giants, planned to profit from the vaccines. According to the WHO figures, Pfizer has made minimal efforts to provide the vaccine to the poorest countries. The company is projecting a $26bn revenue from COVID-19 vaccine sales in 2021.
Moreover, BioNTech, the company with which Pfizer collaborated for its vaccine programme, earned a profit of $1.1bn in the first quarter of 2021 (January to March), though it ran a deficit since it was founded in 2008. While BioNTech accrued losses of almost $428m between January and September 2021, it registered its maiden profit of $446m between October and December 2021.
To maximise profits, Pfizer has been trying to enter the Indian market by cajoling Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to relax restrictions. Under some opaque arrangement, the Modi regime, which is facing public backlash and the Opposition’s salvo fired at it for exhausting India’s COVID-19 vaccines, has provided not only permission to Pfizer to sell its vaccine from July 1st but has also waived the minimal indemnity. This is a threat to the Indian people’s lives as the organisation refuses to take any minimal guarantee for its vaccine.
Apart from Pfizer, US-based pharmaceutical giant Moderna is also profiteering from the vaccine sales. In the US, each vaccine by Moderna or Pfizer costs around $30. The Moderna share value saw a 372% increase following the development of its vaccine.
India approved the Moderna vaccine as well. According to reports, the Drug Controller General of India has claimed that the “post-launch bridging trials” and the requirement for foreign companies to test the quality and stability of their vaccines are waived off to have Moderna sell its vaccine.
The entry of such foreign vaccines, which will primarily target the urban elites and middle-class, the 10% of Indian population, will boost the profits of these big pharmaceutical giants. There are several other vaccines—by pharma companies that have purportedly forgone the profit motive—not considered safe worldwide but the Modi regime is mooting the proposal to allow them to meet the shortfall in vaccines.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine story
American pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, which posted a revenue of $6.2bn between January and March 2021 vis-à-vis $5.8bn during the same period in 2020, has introduced a vaccine that has been considered the most controversial one in the world. The European Medical Agency (EMA) has put a warning label on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine stating that it can cause blood clotting. The EMA didn’t ban its usage in the European Union. However, the US is now trying to use the risky Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine for India, which will turn most Indians into guinea pigs for the pharmaceutical giant.
During her conversation with Modi over India’s vaccine requirements, US Vice President Kamala Harris assured sharing 25m doses of COVID-19 vaccines out of the promised 80m, which will include the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as well. The US is even planning to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccines in India by 2022. This puts India at serious risk, as the blood clotting warning will not prevent the government from administering it, as the people don’t get a choice during vaccination.
What happened to Indian vaccines?
With the outbreak of the COVID-19 in 2020, India also started its vaccine research. The Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech International Ltd started developing India’s indigenous vaccine, the Covaxin, in association with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute of Virology (NIV).
The Covaxin is an inactivated viral vaccine developed according to the Whole-Virion Inactivated Vero Cell-derived technology. As the involvement of the ICMR and the NIV was there, it was thought that India will fully rely upon Covaxin to vaccinate its people. However, that didn’t happen. Covaxin couldn’t deal exclusively with India’s vaccination drive against the COVID-19 pandemic.
British-Swedish pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca also started a vaccine development programme along with Oxford University. They roped in India’s Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII) to manufacture the vaccine—named Covishield—locally. The Central Government allowed the SII to continue with the Covishield development programme, which used the viral vector platform, quite different from the approach taken by Covaxin.
Though nine countries — Guyana, India, Iran, Mauritius, Mexico, Nepal, Paraguay, Philippines and Zimbabwe — approved the Covaxin, the WHO didn’t give it necessary approvals as Bharat Biotech failed to provide the required test data to the body. No approval from the WHO and the EMA will jeopardise India’s indigenous vaccine and put to risk millions in India on whom the dose is administered.
While Covaxin’s future remains in limbo, the AstraZeneca vaccine helped the company earn money, even though many countries have paused its rollout, as it was found that it can cause blood clots in rare cases. This has helped the company to earn $275m from the vaccine between January and March 2021.
As Covaxin and Covishield remain the principal vaccines for India, a country with a population of 1.4bn, their profiteering will be high as the demands for the vaccines grow, especially among the urban elite and middle-class sections, who won’t mind shelling out money to get the jab. Amid India’s acute shortage of COVID-19 vaccines, the opposition Congress party alleges that the two companies will jointly earn a profit of Rs 1.11trillion from their vaccine sales.
Way out for India’s acute shortage of COVID-19 vaccines
Rather than developing a universal vaccination programme for all Indians, the Modi regime is creating vaccine disparity by providing a larger scope for the private healthcare sector to profiteer. The States are forced to shell out money as the Union isn’t buying adequate vaccines for them. To tackle vaccine scarcity, the government is increasing the period between two doses.
To resolve India’s acute shortage of COVID-19 vaccines, which is a result of Modi’s megalomaniac project of exporting Covaxin and Covishield to other countries, India must join China, Russia and the US to force the giant pharmaceutical companies to waive off their intellectual property rights and patents on these vaccines. The Union needs to share the vaccines, free of cost, with the states and bring forth a universal vaccination programme, sans the marketing gimmicks like “Tika Utsav” (vaccination festival) started by Modi.
Unless a universal vaccination drive is undertaken in India and the public sector is roped in to manufacture vaccines on a large scale, neither the acute shortage of COVID-19 vaccines can be resolved nor the target of vaccinating 1.4bn achieved. However, with its servility and corporate-appeasement policy, the Modi regime will never take those steps. This jeopardises India’s COVID-19 vaccination programme and turns it into a fiefdom of big pharmaceutical giants to profiteer by selling vaccines with opaque test data-sharing system. Can India afford to jeopardise its health due to the Modi regime’s continuation of corporate servility?