15 November 2020

Weekly briefing: Clap for corporations


Don’t you just love massive multinational corporations?

Not content with providing for our every need during the pandemic, from food deliveries to free video conferencing and endless cut-price entertainment, those dastardly capitalists have now come up trumps with what looks like a working Covid vaccine.

First, a note of caution. Pfizer and BioNTech’s treatment has shown 90% efficacy – ie in trial conditions – but it’s still relatively early days and its real-world effectiveness may be somewhat lower. Distribution and storage will also be tricky, especially as it has to be kept at a very low temperature. How that will be managed in hot, poor and sparsely populated countries will be a particular challenge.

Then again, Pfizer isn’t the only Big Pharma behemoth with a chance of success. Firms such as Moderna and AstraZeneca also have promising vaccines in late stage trials. And the fact we’re even talking about a successful treatment less than a year since the outbreak is as staggering as it is cheering, given that until now vaccines have typically taken more than 10 years to develop.

It’s a tribute not just to the skill of these companies’ scientists, but to their managerial flexibility. BioNTech’s chief executive Uğur Şahin decided at a stroke to divert his firm’s resources from cancer treatment to tackling coronavirus, a decision that might have taken far longer in a less agile organisation. The ability to act speedily was also behind Pfizer’s decision not to take any money from the US federal government (though naturally Donald Trump is claiming credit anyway). CEO Albert Bourla said he wanted to avoid the bureaucratic ‘strings’ that accompany public money and ‘liberate’ his staff to concentrate on the project itself – and it’s hard to argue with the results.

This isn’t about some crude public bad/private good dichotomy. Much of the research that underpins medical advances is undertaken by public bodies and taxpayer-funded researchers (though, of course, most ‘public’ money is ultimately levied from the private sector). Equally, as Helen Dale wrote for CapX this week, several governments have proven nimble and well organised at handling the virus, while others have demonstrably not.

However, the Spectator’s Matthew Lynn rightly notes that only the pharmaceutical ‘mega corporation’, with its combination of size, logistics and expertise, could have delivered this particular project in this timescale. The industry certainly has its faults – exorbitant US drug prices springs to mind – but we shouldn’t be shy about pointing out where things work well, and learning why.

Rather than praise this historic achievement, however, some are raging at the notion that private companies should be producing a vaccine for profit. One popular leftwing columnist greeted the news of a working vaccine by declaring that the pharmaceutical industry is ‘dysfunctional and morally bankrupt’, which was certainly an oddly timed critique.

Oxfam, which is now as much a leftwing pressure group as a charity, insists rather vaguely on the need for a ‘People’s Vaccine’ – though it’s not clear how companies who have sunk billions into vaccines should be compensated for their outlay (as it happens, AstraZeneca are suggesting their vaccine will be available for a mere $3 to $5 a pop, Oxfam might just get their wish anyway).

One typical attack is that pharmaceutical companies are ‘profiteering’ by charging customers for life-saving treatments, as if making money from medicine is itself an abominable concept. It’s a pretty flimsy argument – you might as well have a go at supermarkets for profiting from hunger by selling us food, or cobblers for profiting from our preference for not going barefoot.

More to the point, if Pfizer hadn’t made profits before, they wouldn’t have the huge resources that enable them to develop this vaccine in such a short space of time. Nor do those critics seem to realise the amount of money such companies invest in medicines that don’t make it to market. Covid is a case in point: there are 11 late stage trial vaccines now, but back in May there were 150 different treatments being researched at considerable cost to the companies involved.

In any case, whatever profit these companies make from their vaccines will be absolutely dwarfed by the products’ utility to consumers and governments. The $13bn Pfizer and BioNTech stands to make in sales next year  sounds like a lot, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the trillions governments have spent trying to keep Covid at bay.

We rightly hold companies’ feet to the fire when they get things wrong, but we should also celebrate where things go right. Perhaps we can mark this week’s good news by gathering your nearest and dearest for a rousing, nationwide ‘clap for corporations’.

No? Well, it was worth a shot.

John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.