The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has created nine new billionaires from the pharmaceutical industry.
Campaigners from the People’s Vaccine Alliance, whose members include Global Justice Now, Oxfam and UNAIDS, have analyzed Forbes Rich List data to highlight the massive wealth being generated for a handful of people from vaccines which were largely publicly funded.
Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel topped the list and is now worth $4.3 billion after his company became the second to be granted emergency use authorization in the U.S. for its COVID-19 vaccine in December last year. (Related: Move aside, Big Pharma: BIG COVID is a trillion-dollar industry and those who profit from it will make sure covid never goes away.)
CEO and co-founder of BioNTech Ugur Sahin is not far behind with a wealth of $4 billion, following its collaboration on a vaccine with Pfizer.
Other Moderna executives have also profited, with immunologist and early investor Timothy Springer now worth $2.2 billion, Chairman Noubar Afeyan $1.9 billion and scientist and founding investor Robert Langer $1.6 billion.
Senior executives from CanSino Biologics have also become billionaires over the last year with the Chinese firm’s co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Zhu Tao now worth $1.3 billion, co-founder and Senior Vice President Qiu Dongxu worth $1.2 billion and co-founder and Senior Vice President Mao Huinhoa $1 billion.
CanSino has developed a one-shot vaccine that was approved for use in China this February.
ROVI Chairman Juan Lopez-Belmonte also made the list with $1.8 billion. Spanish contract drugmaker Rovi makes bottles for Moderna’s vaccine and last month reached a new deal to start making its active ingredients.
The industry’s nine new billionaires have a combined worth of $19.3 billion.
With the average vaccine costing $19 and 775,710,612 people living in low-income countries, according to UN data, that amount of money would be enough to vaccinate every person 1.3 times.
Eight existing billionaires with big stakes in Big Pharma companies have also seen their combined wealth increase by a staggering $32.2 billion, the alliance found.
Zhifei Biological Chairman Jiang Rensheng and family raised their worth to $24.4 billion this year from $7.6 billion last year; Cyrus Poonawalla, founder of Serum Institute of India, is now worth $12.7 billion from $8.2 billion; Tse Ping of Sinopharm is now worth $8.9 billion from $7.3 billion; Wu Guanjiang, co-founder of Zhifei Biological, is now worth $5.1 billion from $1.80 billion; Thomas and Andreas Struengmann and their respective families, who have stakes with Germany’s BioNTech and Uruguay’s Mega Pharma, are now worth $11 billion each from similar $9.6 billion last year; Pankaj Patel of Cadila Healthcare is now worth $5 billion from $2.9 billion; and Patrick Soon-Shiong of ImmunityBio is now worth $7.5 billion from $6.4 billion last year.
Anne Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager, said Big Pharma companies and the executives behind them have taken the monopoly on the COVID-19 vaccine.
“These billionaires are the human face of the huge profits many pharmaceutical corporations are making from the monopoly they hold on these vaccines,” she said. “These vaccines were funded by public money and should be first and foremost a global public good, not a private profit opportunity.”
Shares in Big Pharma companies responsible for developing the vaccines skyrocketed as they gained authorization for use in nations across the world.
Moderna has seen its share price surge more than 700 percent since last February when COVID shuttered much of the world. During the same timeframe, BioNTech has increased by 600 percent and CanSino Biologics by 440 percent.
The research comes ahead of the G20 Global Health Summit where world leaders are expected to discuss whether to waive patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines. (Related: Harvard study: U.S. government actively props up Big Pharma’s profiteering monopoly.)
The alliance warned that these protections allow Big Pharma companies total control over the supply and price of vaccines, pushing up their profits while making it harder for poor countries to secure the stocks they need.
“While the companies making massive profits from COVID vaccines are refusing to share their science and technology with others in order to increase the global vaccine supply, the world continues to face the very real risk of mutations that could render the vaccines we have ineffective and put everyone at risk all over again,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima.
Earlier this month, the U.S. backed proposals by South Africa and India at the World Trade Organization to temporarily break up these monopolies and lift the patents on COVID-19 vaccines.
However, rich nations like the United Kingdom and Germany are still blocking the proposal, putting the interest of pharmaceutical companies over what’s best for the world.
“As thousands of people die each day in India, it is utterly repugnant that the UK, Germany and others want to put the interests of the billionaire owners of Big Pharma ahead of the desperate needs of millions,” said Heidi Chow, senior policy and campaigns manager at Global Justice Now.
There’s also been pushback from some top names in Big Pharma as such a move would likely slash their profits.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla blasted the idea as “so wrong,” saying it would punish the firm for its progress and discourage biotech companies from creating treatments and inoculations for future pandemics.
He also claimed it would spark a race for raw materials that would threaten the safe and efficient production of the vaccines. Instead, he said the company will provide two billion vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries over the next 18 months.
Bourla’s own pay surged to a staggering $21 million last year, a rise of 17 percent and he has scored a deal with Harper Business to write a book on the story behind the vaccine development.
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