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Thursday Apr 22 2021
By
Web Desk

Pharmaceutical giants shell out billions to shareholders as world confronts vaccine apartheid

By
Web Desk
Photo for representation — File.
  • Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca have paid out $26 billion in dividends and stock buybacks to their shareholders in the past 12 months.
  • Vaccine apartheid is not a natural phenomenon but the result of governments stepping back and allowing corporations to call the shots, says Oxfam.
  • While one in four citizens of rich nations has had a vaccine, just one in 500 people in poorer countries have done so.


Ahead of shareholder meetings for giant pharmaceutical corporations, the People’s Vaccine Alliance calculates that Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca have paid out $26 billion in dividends and stock buybacks to their shareholders in the past 12 months.

This would be enough to pay to vaccinate at least 1.3bn people, the equivalent of the population of Africa.

Peoples Vaccine Alliance is working for free vaccine to all. It is a movement of health, humanitarian, and human rights organisations, past and present world leaders, health experts, faith leaders and economists advocating that COVID-19 vaccines be manufactured rapidly and at scale, as global common goods, free of intellectual property protections and made available to all people, in all countries, free of charge.

Oxfam International, in a press release issued Thursday ahead of the Big Pharma shareholder meeting this week and next week, said: “This is a public health emergency, not a private profit opportunity.” 

Oxfam Health Policy Manager Anna Marriott said: “We should not be letting corporations decide who lives and who dies while boosting their profits. We need a people’s vaccine, not a profit vaccine.”

“Vaccine apartheid is not a natural phenomenon but the result of governments stepping back and allowing corporations to call the shots. Instead of creating new vaccine billionaires we need to be vaccinating billions in developing countries. It is appalling that Big Pharma is making huge pay-outs to wealthy shareholders in the face of this global health emergency,” Marriott said.

“The Peoples Vaccine does not endorse a price of $19. Prices can and should be far lower than this to make vaccinating the world possible,” Oxfam quoted the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

The shareholder meetings began on April 22 with Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson followed by Moderna and Astra Zeneca in the coming weeks.

 Protests are expected outside the meetings in the US and UK while investors inside the meetings will be presenting resolutions to expand vaccine access. There is a growing backlash against the de facto privatisation of successful Covid-19 vaccines and pressure on the pharma firms to openly license the intellectual property and share the technology and know-how with qualified vaccine producers across the world.

While the global economy remains frozen due to the slow and uneven vaccine rollout worldwide, the soaring shares of vaccine makers have created a new wave of billionaires.

The founder of BioNTech, Ugur Sahin, is now worth $5.9 billion and Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel $5.2 billion. According to regulatory filings, Bancel has cashed out more than $142 million in Moderna stock since the pandemic began. Many other investors have also become billionaires in the last few months, while the International Chamber of Commerce projects a worst-case GDP loss of $9 trillion due to global vaccine inequity.

While one in four citizens of rich nations has had a vaccine, just one in 500 people in poorer countries have done so, meaning the death toll continues to climb as the virus remains out of control. Epidemiologists are predicting we have less than a year before mutations could render the current vaccines ineffective.

One of the reasons Pharma companies have been able to generate such large profits is because of intellectual property rules that restrict production to a handful of companies.

Last week, 175 former heads of state and Nobel Prize winners, including Gordon Brown, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Francoise Hollande wrote to President Biden to support the temporary waiving of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines to enable the rapid scale-up of vaccine production across the world. 

They join the 1.5 million people in the US and other nations who have signalled their support for a Peoples Vaccine. Over 100 low and middle-income nations, led by India and South Africa, are calling at the World Trade Organisation for a waiver of intellectual property protections on Covid-19 products during the pandemic, a move so far opposed by the US, EU and other rich nations.