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Drugmakers are set to profit from COVID vaccines made with publicly funded research

With the world pinning its hopes on a successful coronavirus vaccine to curb the pandemic, corporate watchdogs say much of the research and development of the medicines rely on publicly funded research. "The investment in these vaccines, as for most drugs, has really been underwritten by the taxpayer, by the government," says Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I'm Amy Goodman.

As the coronavirus pandemic intensifies, a third major drug company has injected good news into the race for a potential vaccine. That's AstraZeneca. It says late-stage trials show its COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University is [70%] effective. Last week, drug giants Pfizer and Moderna reported their vaccines are almost 95% effective. The new vaccine manufactured by Oxford-AstraZeneca could be easier to distribute than the others because it does not have to be stored at ultra-freezing temperatures. It could also be cheaper because AstraZeneca has pledged not to make a profit on it during the pandemic, and agreed to price doses at about $2.50 each. The Associated Press reports Pfizer's vaccine costs about $20 a dose, while Moderna's is $15 to $25, based on the companies' agreements to supply their vaccines to the U.S. government. As many as 14 billion vaccine doses would be required to immunize everyone worldwide.

Corporate watchdog Public Citizen says the vaccines belong to the people, as Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines relied heavily on discoveries from research funded by taxpayers, who actually paid twice, when the Trump administration also gave Moderna an additional $1.5 billion to secure doses in advance.

For more, we're joined by Public Citizen's president, Rob Weissman.

Rob, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain what it means to say that these vaccines should belong to the world, not be the property of a private corporation.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, it turns out that the investment in these vaccines, as for most drugs, has really been underwritten by the taxpayer, by the government. In the case of Pfizer, they did not take direct money from the government to finish their vaccine, but they're relying heavily on a publicly funded invention as the core of what they're trying to do. In the case of the Moderna vaccine, which really should be viewed as the National Institutes of Health-Moderna vaccine, the government actually owns a portion of the vaccine, we believe. It funded 100% of the development at Moderna. And as you said, they've also now — the government has pledged a billion-and-a-half dollars to purchase the vaccine, that we co-invented and 100% paid for. So, these are vaccines that the government has an investment interest in, an ownership interest in, in the case of Moderna, and therefore, when we think about how it's going to be procured and distributed and, most importantly, produced and supplied in the U.S., but around the world, the government has just got to say, "We're going to exercise our powers."

I will say, though, even if the government hadn't paid for the vaccine, even if the inventions weren't product of public investment over many years, in light of the pandemic, we should still say we cannot tolerate patent monopolies conferring on corporations the power to control who can make the vaccine and how it's going to be supplied. What we should do in the United States and around the world is say, "This is technology that the world needs, and we're going to share it as widely as we possibly can, to make sure we can produce as much vaccine as we need as quickly as possible, to get not just the United States, but the entire world, out of the pandemic quickly."

AMY GOODMAN: So, now, this is really critical about how — you know, there's a difference between vaccines and vaccinations, moving into this issue of who gets vaccinated. You have the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Both are double shots.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Pfizer vaccine has to be kept at 100 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Moderna doesn't have to be kept quite as cold, but the Pfizer vaccine would require whole new refrigeration. Even states in the United States say they don't have the ability to keep it that cold, let alone countries in the developing world.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, that's right. There are going to be some technical problems with getting it distributed. But I have to say, if the world cares, man, you solve the technical problems. The real hard limit we face now is there's not going to be enough supply, because these companies cannot make enough fast enough. And if they try to license it to other partners, as they are doing, it's still going to be too slow. They're going to spend too much time debating the details of it, and the licensees are not going to be able to make enough of it.

So, what does that mean? Well, it means that people in the developing world are going to wait longer, maybe three, four, even five years, to get the vaccine, that hopefully will be fully distributed in the United States within the course of the next nine months or so. We already have 170 million people in the developing world who have fallen into deep poverty, under $3.50 a day, since the pandemic started. So you're going to see these poorer countries crushed by an ongoing pandemic, when it's been solved in the rich countries. And, of course, you're going to have hundreds of thousands of lives lost that could be saved if the vaccine was distributed immediately.

So, what's the solution? Well, we actually need more supply. And we could get more supply if the U.S. government said, "We're going to share this technology. Every manufacturer that has capacity, the ability to make a quality product, we're going to show you how to do this, and encourage you to do it as much as you can, as fast as we can. And we, the U.S. government, we're going to help build some more facilities to make more, because the world can't wait."

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what this would mean for all of these vaccines. Again, you have AstraZeneca. You have — and then the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine would cost more. Johnson & Johnson is going to be talking about theirs coming out. And also, what does it mean not charging during the pandemic, but then charging? What could be set up, where you have a situation in the world where it is guaranteed everyone who wants a vaccine gets a vaccine?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, what we should say — the United States is the leading power on this, both as the most powerful country in the world and also as the home to two of these companies that have developed these early vaccines. We should say we're going to share the technology. We're going to share the intellectual property rights, the patents and other intellectual property rights, and the know-how. We're going to actually show people, show companies how to make this vaccine, and do it through the World Health Organization, which has a facility set up to do this, do it directly with companies. We're going to produce as much as we quickly can. Pay something to Pfizer and Moderna that we determine to be fair based on their contributions to the research and the cost, but don't let them exert monopoly control. And if we do that, we could scale up globally really quickly and get everybody the vaccine as quickly as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Rob, can you talk about the Serum Institute in India that can mass-produce vaccines? Will they be able to get access to the know-how to manufacture these vaccines?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, where we are right now is the authority is vested in the companies, so it's going to depend on what kind of deals the companies cut. The companies actually are licensing around the world, but it's too slow a process. And there's no transparency, so we're not really likely to know what the terms are of those license deals, how much information and know-how they're transferring over, whether they're permitting a company like the large Indian manufacturers to sell outside of India, around the world. Do they limit the countries they can get into?

And then, as you're alluding to, what these companies are saying, "Well, we'll do it at what we call a nonprofit price — not really nonprofit, but what we call a nonprofit price — for a while, like during the pandemic. But if there's an ongoing need for this vaccine — and we don't know, this may require ongoing shots — well, we're not committing to that nonprofit price over the long term." So, they're worried about not just year one. They're worried about what's happening in year four and five. And they're trying to control the technology so they can make profits for many years to come.

We just can't tolerate that. Pay them what we think is fair. Share the technology. Get everybody vaccinated. Because the alternative is what we're about to venture into, which is a global vaccine apartheid, where people in rich countries get access to this vaccine, the countries collectively are able to get out of the pandemic, but people in poorer countries are going to be living with it for years and years, with huge consequences both for their health and the well-being of their economies. And it's just an absolutely intolerable situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Rob, speaking about rich and poor, since President Trump signed the CARES Act nearly eight months ago, benefits have expired as the pandemic intensifies, but Senate Republicans and the White House have refused to advance multiple relief measures passed by the Democrat-controlled House. On Friday, Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to the House floor to call out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for sending the Senate home for Thanksgiving without finalizing a coronavirus relief bill.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Our country is going hungry on the week before Thanksgiving, and the Senate broke. I don't care what party you are, it is an abandonment of our responsibilities as elected officials who are charged with acting in the public trust.

AMY GOODMAN: AOC is wearing all black. Public Citizen recently tweeted in all capital letters, "WHY IS THE SENATE ON VACATION WHILE AMERICANS ARE DYING WITH NO RELIEF?" We have 10 seconds, Rob Weissman.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: It's unconscionable. We've got rising hunger, rising homelessness, tens of millions of people out of work. The Senate has refused to act on the bill that passed the House in May, and people are going to suffer as a result. Hopefully we can get a deal done quickly, but this is all resting at the feet of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen. I'm Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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