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The Democrats Are Enabling Pfizer’s Vaccine Imperialism

Huge portions of the world have little or no access to Covid vaccines. Pfizer is holding its vaccines ransom and extorting governments for its profits — while the Democrats sit and watch.

Jason Koslowski

October 23, 2021
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PHOTO: Forbes

To secure and ramp up its profits, Pfizer is holding its coronavirus vaccines ransom against poorer countries across the globe. Meanwhile, Biden and the Democrats do nothing. 

Working in tandem with the publicly funded German firm BioNTek, Pfizer has sold more doses of their vaccine than any other vaccine developer in the world — about 3.5 billion already.

But it has fought to keep secret the terms of its deals with countries in South America, Africa, and beyond. The Washington Post notes that Pfizer has negotiated 73 contracts to sell its vaccine around the world, but as Public Citizen reports, those contracts forbid the governments of countries like the U.S. and Brazil from even mentioning the negotiations without Pfizer’s explicit agreement. Only a handful of unredacted contracts have been leaked. 

And the secrecy is for good reason. The leaked documents shine a spotlight on a monopoly firm using its international power to defend and increase its profits at any cost to human life and suffering — with the tacit support of Democrats in the United States.

In the words of the Public Citizen report that broke the story, “The contracts offer a rare glimpse into the power one pharmaceutical corporation has gained to silence governments, throttle supply, shift risk and maximize profits in the worst public health crisis in a century.”

Profit Above All

Proof of Pfizer’s quest for profits is clear, for example, in that the contracts forbid countries from receiving donations of Pfizer vaccines — and block them from, in turn, donating vaccines anywhere else. That is, Pfizer ensures its vaccines are bought so that it can realize a profit on the sale. For Brazil, for example, donating vaccines to a country in need “would be considered an ‘incurable material breach’ of their agreement,” meaning Pfizer could immediately refuse to fulfill its order of vaccines to the country — though the full cost of the order would still need to be paid.

Pfizer protects its profits by making sure any costs — even those that Pfizer itself causes through its own mistakes or negligence— are paid by other countries’ governments, not itself. For instance, contracts state Pfizer has full immunity in the case of its own mistakes in delivery, in any failure on its own part to make sure the doses are stored at extremely cold temperatures when being prepared for shipment, and so on. Even if Pfizer fails to deliver its agreed-on doses of vaccines on time, it will not be liable for any penalty — regardless of the length of delay. Any legal costs would have to be taken on by the governments themselves. And those governments will have to pay their bills on-time no matter what, even if the shipments are late or spoiled. 

In fact, Pfizer is taking steps to make sure it can wield its power over elected governments for its own benefit. In the case of any dispute between a country’s rulers and Pfizer, the issue will be settled by a private group of arbiters in secret — not by a country’s legal system as established in its constitution. And Pfizer has demanded that no doses of the vaccine will be delivered unless those countries put their own public assets —bank reserves, for example, as well as embassies — as collateral. It is confirmed that Pfizer has secured this deal in Brazil, Chile, Columbia and Dominican Republic, if not other countries as well. Says Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor of public health in the Post article, “It’s almost as if the company would ask the United States to put the Grand Canyon as collateral.”

One key way Pfizer protects its profits is by using the law to secure its “intellectual property” — the vaccine formula it developed with BioNTech. CEO Albert Bourla denounced the idea that Pfizer should release its formula so factories across the globe could produce more vaccines faster. He called the idea “nonsense” and said that making the vaccine private property is “the blood of the private sector, is what brought a solution to this pandemic and it is not a barrier right now.” 

But that private property system is one of the major barriers to actually defeating the pandemic. 

First, Moderna and Pfizer are producing far fewer vaccines than the world currently needs, and far fewer than could be produced if all patents were removed. The highly infectious Delta variant continues to sweep across the world, and huge portions of the globe — especially in the Global South — still have little or no access to any Covid-19 vaccine. Only 36 percent of the world is fully vaccinated against the disease. In India, one of the most populous countries in the world, that number is 21 percent. In Cameroon, it’s 0.55 percent. Defending the vaccine patents means slowing vaccine production and slowing the ability to address new variants when they emerge.

Second, Pfizer’s attempts to extort governments creates major delays in distributing vaccines across the globe. For example, when Pfizer dictated its terms to South Africa and Brazil, the governments there walked away from the table. For Brazil, it meant they accepted roughly the same deal, only with months’ delay while the pandemic raged.

But the Public Citizen expose goes further. Pfizer includes in at least some of its contracts a provision that makes itself immune to any lawsuits about Pfizer stealing other companies’ vaccine formulae, like that of Moderna. 

<BLOCKQUOTE>For example, if another vaccine maker sued Pfizer for patent infringement in Colombia, the contract requires the Colombian government to foot the bill. At Pfizer’s request, Colombia is required to defend the company (i.e., take control of legal proceedings). Pfizer also explicitly says that it does not guarantee that its product does not violate third-party IP, or that it needs additional licenses.</BLOCKQUOTE>

In other words, protecting property rights has little to do with fighting the pandemic in the most effective way. Pfizer is against intellectual property rights if opposing them will help secure the company’s own profits. It is only a champion of property rights when it’s good for business.

Pfizer’s contracts with countries across the globe has been part of a historic glut of profits for the firm. It reported a 92 percent growth in 2021, with revenue ramping up from 9.8 billion a year to 19 billion. The vaccine alone amounted to hundreds of millions in profits. 

The Only Cure

Pfizer’s actions to secure profit are not a glitch of capitalism today; they are a feature. For example, Moderna, for its part, was reported to be price gouging countries for access to its vaccine — precisely because doing so would be good for business. 

The Democratic Party, for its part, stands aside and watches. Earlier in the pandemic, the Biden administration said it supports a temporary suspension of intellectual property for the vaccines, but this has been a show for the cameras. The Biden administration has refused to actually fight to lift the patent protections. The administration also promised to donate vaccines across the globe, but that promise falls far short of the actual measures that it would take to stop the virus. 

Stripping vaccine pharmaceutical companies of their property rights to the Covid-19 vaccines would make it possible to vastly ramp up the production and distribution of the vaccine across the globe. The Biden administration, though, chooses to protect private profits over addressing the biggest health catastrophe in a century.

The Public Citizen report stops at the need to release the vaccine formulae. But we need far, far more. The death toll in the United States and across the globe, and the actions and inactions of both Trump and Biden, show that capitalism cannot fully address a crisis like this pandemic. What is driving the response to the pandemic is the profit motive: making sure that monopoly capital can reap massive profits in the world markets forcibly opened due to the pandemic. 
The only real cure is the end of capitalism and its parties — a fight not just to lift the vaccine patents, but for socialized healthcare under worker control, the end of commodifying science for profit, and for the death of a system based on profit over people. The Democrats and the corporations like Pfizer they serve can’t help with that cure; they’re part of the disease.

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Jason Koslowski

Jason is a contingent college teacher and union organizer who lives in Philadelphia.

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