Big Pharma’s Greedy Palm, Outstretched Again

By James Fortin

U.S. Big Pharma is doing a victory lap.  Never to miss an accolade or two from their friends at the Wall Street Journal, pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson is taking the bow under the recent article entitled, “Capitalism Is What Will Defeat Covid.”  Oh, really?

In the piece CEO Alex Gorsky half-truthfully states that J&J “would never be in the position where we are today if we had not invested billions of dollars over decades so that we could respond” to the COVID-19 crisis.

The missing other half of the truth is worth noting.  Johnson & Johnson, together with other pharmaceutical purveyors, received somewhere near $10 billion in advance payments from the U.S. government in 2020 to rush vaccine production along.  J&J’s piece of the booty was over $1 billion.

Big Pharma’s Most Generous Godfather

The U.S. government, whose overarching role is to protect capitalist business interests, has long propped up the drug companies with grants, subsidies, tax breaks and scientific know-how. From the 1930’s through 2015 according to The Los Angeles Times, the National Institutes of Health have injected nearly $900 billion into research that assisted the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

NIH Director Francis Collins has summarized, “We at N.I.H. play a very major role in the early stages of almost every drug that gets developed and approved by the FDA,”  quite a significant admission given that 210 new drugs were approved by the FDA between 2010 and 2016.

Initial research by the government eliminates upfront costs and risks that the drug kingpins would otherwise have to assume — a sweet deal indeed for the proponents of “free-market” pharmaceutical capitalism.  Additionally the $10 billion giveaway to the Covid-19 vaccine producers helped them retrofit factories, build productions lines, acquire raw materials, and start manufacture with guaranteed orders.  Once again, the shameful motive for Big Pharma to act was not the well- being of those in the U.S., let alone the masses abroad waiting for a vaccine, but the amount of cash the government could slap onto their greedy palms.

Another part of the package handed over to Big Pharma was the most valuable gift of all – previously developed vaccine science.  It was the NIH that provided the master key to the successful underlying science that has allowed vaccines to be produced by J&J, Pfizer, Moderna and others.  The molecular engineering prowess of NIH scientists during the MERS and other epidemics led to their ability to use the same science on any coronavirus that should originate, such as COVID-19.  It was research being performed over the years at public expense when private Pharma was doing nothing to prepare for the likes of a COVID-19 epidemic. The government now owns a number of patents upon which current vaccines depend.

As history has shown,  the payments, grants and subsidies are what Big Pharma has grown to expect.  Its cozy relationship with the NIH will likely permit the pharmaceuticals to pay relatively little or nothing for the research and patents of the U.S. government. In exchange, the industry’s willingness to supply vaccines at reduced cost to the government – which allows for free distribution to the public — is touted by these charlatans as some manner of beneficial act. The drug giants have a bigger prize in mind with enormous benefit, especially for them.

The Arrogance and Greed of Imperial Pharma

Big Pharma can hardly wait to begin selling its vaccines to the rest of the world, where pricing controls are mostly non-existent.  As Frank D’Amelio, Pfizer’s CFO admitted, “obviously we are going to get more on price,” then estimating that follow-on nations may be billed up to $175 per dose, or whatever the market will bear.  Upwards of $100 billion likely will be extracted from poor and less developed countries in exchange for Pharma’s shot at life after the U.S. and EU get their doses.

As of this writing distribution is on track to provide three-quarters of the available doses to the U.S. and  9 other developed countries prompting critics to label the situation as “vaccine apartheid.”  By comparison, the 29 most impoverished nations of the earth have received only 0.1 percent of the vaccines.  

Despite earlier attempts by the World Health organization to have developing countries waive patent protection from their control over COVID-19 vaccine development, thereby making vaccines available to the world much earlier, not a single vaccine producer or their parent countries have agreed.  More recent attempts by India and South Africa at the United Nations to push for even a temporary lifting of patent restrictions on coronavirus medications and vaccines have hit a virtual wall of opposition from the advanced capitalist states, including the United States.

On the surface it would appear to be quite an amazing feat.  J&J plus the rest of the pharmaceutical manipulators have gone from a state of unpreparedness for mass production of anti-coronavirus vaccines to a position of overseeing the soon-to-be  tidal wave of vaccine wealth.  The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has identified a leading reason for the phenomenon.

The privileged position of this psychopathic industry in the capitalist schema is evidenced not alone by how much Big Pharma receives from the government, but also as demonstrated by how much it spends for lobbying and campaign contributions, greasing the wheel so to speak.  JAMA concluded that the industry spent $4.7 billion between 1999 and 2018 to steer Congress and state legislatures to its point of view, targeting politicians involved in drafting health care laws, drug pricing initiatives and other regulations.  Combined with a pliant atmosphere created by the revolving door between government functionaries and the hordes of pharmaceutical lobbyists and staffers, Big Pharma’s financial largesse is just the spigot directing the flow of the government subsidy.

Cuba is the Inspirational Alternative

While the greedy behavior of Big Pharma instantly emerges with every infectious disease outbreak, there is one bright spot of contrarian behavior on the globe, that being found in revolutionary Cuba. The self-censoring, pro-capitalist, major U.S. media speaks little of it.  In fact most positive news coming out of socialist Cuba is suppressed by these forces.  However, the efforts of Cuba and its people to fight COVID-19 and other diseases are downright inspirational, as international journals, score of countries, and growing numbers of politically awakening Americans now agree.

Cuba has been resolute in its creation, development, and maintenance of a health care system, including life-saving drugs and vaccines, that places the healthy well-being of  its citizens above all else.  The right to a life free of disease is one of the constitutionally engraved purposes of Cuban society and government, resulting in top-notch, universal free health care that contrasts sharply with the profit motive of corporations in the U.S. and other capitalist states.

Despite the economic warfare directed against Cuba by the U.S. through its crippling embargos and sanctions over six decades, Cubans have prevailed.  Unable to secure medicines, vaccines, medical equipment or other critical technology and science from the U.S., Cuba began its state-owned and directed medical research and production efforts decades ago, now embodied in its publicly-financed, pharmaceutical entity, BioCubaPharma.

BioCubaPharma pulls together 38 Cuban companies in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors consisting of 60 manufacturing locations and 22,000 workers, one-third of which are scientists and engineers.  Despite the illegal U.S. blockade, BioCubaPharma has created the world’s first meningitis B vaccine; a half dozen anti-inflammatory medications that successfully treat the effects of COVID-19, particularly among critically ill patients; and Hebrobrot-P, the most effective international treatment for serious diabetic ulcers reducing the need for amputations.  Completely removed from the island through vaccinations are poliomyelitis, diphtheria, measles, pertussis, and rubella.  Most recently Cuban science has successfully tackled what has stymied other scientists across the globe – an immunotherapy path to defeating cancer.  Its anti-lung cancer vaccine is now in collaborative Phase III trials being conducted by the New York-based, Roswell Park Comprehensive Care Cancer Center.

Cuba justifiably prides itself on having created 5 Covid-19 vaccine candidates, two of which – Soberana-2 and Abdala – are now in Phase III trials and showing potent immunological response.  A dozen countries have lined up to order doses when trials are completed.  The Financial Times of England commented:  “If successful, Cuba’s development of a [Covid-19] vaccine will become another renowned example of a small island nation making a historic contribution to world events far beyond its size.”  Have that read, “…a small socialist island nation…”

Unlike the U.S. drug makers who view vaccine production through the capitalist lens of a profit-and-loss statement, the Cuban socialist enterprise sees vaccines as another step towards its goal of a safe and healthy people as well as its expression of solidarity with the poor and oppressed of the world.  Accordingly, the Cubans plan to export doses of Soberna-2 at cost plus a small margin to support its healthcare system.  Cuba intends as well to license its technology to lesser developed nations and to donate outright at no charge vaccines to the poorest countries in need.

What is happening in Cuba is also what is needed in the U.S.  Free quality health care for all, including vaccinations, but devoid of the profit motive is not only possible, but urgently demanded by society.  The U.S. has the technical capacity, financial ability, and human resources to accomplish just such a goal.  It is the profit-driven banditry of heath care conglomerates, pharmaceutical giants, and insurance industry hucksters operating in the context of an obsolete economic system that stands in the way.  Capitalism is the obstacle; socialism is the solution.

Getting back to Johnson & Johnson, its CEO had one more comment, this one 100% truthful.  “I think this is a golden moment, not only for Johnson & Johnson, but for the biopharmaceutical industry.” Oh, how true in its own way .  J&J might just as well have said its “golden moment” also will require  a vault to store all the gold.  Will they ask us to pay for that, too?

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