Health and Business, or Vice Versa
It’s potentially the greatest opportunity ever presented to the world of business. Coincidentally it’s also the greatest opportunity for massive fraud. It’s the elusive Covid-19 vaccine. One wonders what is going through the heads of the pharmaceutical executives competing for the biggest prize ever, a vaccine that every person in the world urgently needs, and for which the producers can virtually name their own price, just as they do with the medicines they sell to the American Social Security administration.
It also presents the greatest opportunity to save lives, reactivate economies, and bring the world back to life. But, given the American pharmaceutical industry’s track record, one suspects that the economic incentive is their first priority. Let’s take a look at how they’re doing thus far.
Operation Warp Speed, the Trump Administration’s Six-Billion-Dollar Vaccine Betting Shop
As of early July this program of massive Trump administration cash handouts extends to eight pharmaceutical companies for expediting development and preparation for the clinical trials necessary for the manufacturing of their respective vaccine candidates: Johnson & Johnson (Janssen Pharmaceutical), AstraZeneca-University of Oxford, Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Merck, Vaxart, Inovio, and Novavax. According to Science magazine, Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said a group of vaccine experts his agency convened to work with Warp Speed did a scientific review of 50 candidate COVID-19 vaccines. Members of that group have expressed surprise at some of Warp Speed’s choices.
Dr. Michael Abrams, M.P.H., Ph.D., of the Public Citizen Health Research Group is more straightforward:
It is sadly predictable that Big Pharma responds to a global pandemia by trying to bring to market only those drugs that maximize its profits. (Audio Source: DemocracyNow.org)
The ensuing controversy was immediate. The most authorized questions came from the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. On the opening day of their hearing, Senator Patty Murray (D–WA) advised the witnesses
“We’re going to need to hold this administration accountable to avoid repeating mistakes and delays… The administration still has not provided any explanation of how it is selecting vaccine candidates, what the risks are of narrowing down that shortlist or addressed concerns about potential conflicts in contracts that predate this crisis.” (Source: Sciencemag.org)
The Stuff of Instant Billionaires
Operation Warp Speed has made the United States the front runner in the race to produce a solution to the Covid-19 pandemic. Not entirely surprisingly, the economic secondary effects are getting more press than the possible health benefits. The stock market movements generated by the major players are unprecedented, considering that none of their products have cleared the testing hurdles necessary to confirm a viable vaccine. What’s more bizarre is that one of the most heavily endowed companies, to the tune of $1.6 billion, according to The New York Times, is the small company, Novavax, which has never brought a vaccine to market in its more than 30-year history. Another of the leading companies in the race, Moderna, Inc., in business since 2010, also has yet to produce any vaccine capable of passing US government certification requirements, but has enjoyed nearly a billion dollars in Operation Warp Speed grants.
This is not the only apparent anomaly that makes Moderna a subject of morbid curiosity. They also employ an unusual cat-and-mouse communications policy that seems more focused on influencing its stock-market value than discussing progress in the development of its product. Moderna’s CEO, Stéphane Bancel, a French businessman and 9% owner of Moderna who joined theme in 2016, comes from a sales background. Stat News has reported that Bancel leads “a highly secretive culture with little outside review of its science or research.” In April 2020, with the Moderna share price rising on news of imminent Phase 2 human trials for its potential COVID-19 vaccine, his stake of 9% stake became worth more than $1 billion.
The rest of Moderna’s top executives, who also hold major equity in the company, and tend to come and go, are doing a brisk business selling pieces of their pig-in-a-poke, thanks largely to the company’s astutely ambiguous communications policies. The Moderna executives have made so much money already that the question of achieving a successful vaccine begins to look like a secondary consideration. What seems remarkable to an impartial outside observer is the fact that these big investors in Moderna, Inc. are investing in a promise, not a product.
Didn’t the Obama Administration Leave Trump a Pandemic Roadmap?
In keeping with a 2016 law on improving presidential transitions, Obama’s White House National Security Council left the Trump administration a 69-page Pandemic Playbook on how to respond to a pandemic. The document, the existence of which was publicly revealed by Politico in March, is called the Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents.
According to an article in the Mercury News:
The playbook includes step-by-step advice regarding questions to ask, decisions to make, and which federal agencies are responsible for what. It includes sample documents that officials could use for inter-agency meetings. And it explicitly lists novel coronaviruses as one of the kinds of pathogens that could require a major response.
So why did Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, say in an online discussion hosted by the Trump campaign on May 11, 2020:
They claim pandemics only happen once every hundred years but what if that’s no longer true? We want to be early, ready for the next one, because clearly the Obama administration did not leave to this administration any kind of game plan for something like this. (Source: The Washington Post)
Perhaps it was because he heard the President say it.
Cheeky Brits Question President Trump’s Coronavirus Response
The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, unhindered by the American mainstream press’s “restraint” says:
Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which he once dismissed as a hoax, has been fiercely criticised at home as woefully inadequate to the point of irresponsibility. Yet also thanks largely to Trump, a parallel disaster is unfolding across the world: the ruination of America’s reputation as a safe, trustworthy, competent international leader and partner. Call it the Trump double-whammy. Diplomatically speaking, the US is on life support.
Tisdall quotes Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard:
The Trump administration’s self-centred, haphazard, and tone-deaf response [to Covid-19] will end up costing Americans trillions of dollars and thousands of otherwise preventable deaths,” wrote . But that’s not the only damage the United States will suffer. Far from ‘making America great again’, this epic policy failure will further tarnish [its] reputation as a country that knows how to do things effectively.
If any trace of fraud or dicey dealings should appear in the matter of the future American vaccine—and it wouldn’t be the first time–who is left holding the bag? Big Pharma? The Trump administration? Maybe it would be a safer bet to wait for the German-Chinese vaccine that is just now entering the testing phase in China.
Even if a viable vaccine were achieved, the American vaccine program would still not be home free. Recent polls have found as few as 50% of people in the United States are committed to receiving a vaccine, with another quarter wavering. Some of the communities most at risk from the virus are also the most leery: Among Black people, who account for nearly one-quarter of U.S. COVID-19 deaths, 40% said they wouldn’t get a vaccine in a mid-May poll by the Associated Press and the University of Chicago. (Source: ScienceMag.org)
Then there’s the question of pricing. The American public has not forgotten the remdesivir scandal in which its California manufacturer, Gilead, was accused of price gouging for setting a price of their partially effective treatment for Covid-19 at $2,340 for a five-day course. U.S. insurers, in addition to Medicare and Medicaid, would be required to pay 33% more, or $3,120. Gilead hasn’t disclosed how much it costs to make remdesivir, although a recent study in the Journal of Virus Eradication suggested it is 93 cents for a day’s supply. (Source: StatNews.com)
Don’t Worry, Some Americans Can Feel Secure
At least eight US pharmaceutical companies, chosen after a rigorous selection process, the criteria for which have not been revealed, are hard at work in laboratories, banks and stock markets, in an effort to create a Covid-19 vaccine that not only maximizes the profits from the operation but actually works to prevent the disease. So, not all of the American coronavirus vaccine panorama is bleakness. Let’s look at the brighter side. Whether or not US pharmaceutical giants–and not so giant–ever manage to produce an effective vaccine against Covid-19, some of them, employing tried and true American marketing techniques, are already making a great deal of money.
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