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New vaccine billionaires as Moderna and BioNTech shares soar

Calls continue for an end to monopoly control on vaccine technology in order to boost production and push down prices.

Staff Writers
2 minute read
Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel, the richest new vaccine billionaire, is now worth over US$4 billion. Photo: AP
Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel, the richest new vaccine billionaire, is now worth over US$4 billion. Photo: AP

Profits from Covid-19 jabs have helped at least nine people become billionaires, a campaign group said on Thursday, while calling for an end to pharmaceutical corporations’ “monopoly control” on vaccine technology.

“Between them, the nine new billionaires have a combined net wealth of around US$20 billion, easily enough to fully vaccinate all the people in low-income countries,” The People’s Vaccine Alliance (PVA) said, citing Forbes data.

Much of the scientific research that went into the creation of effective vaccines against Covid-19 was paid for by taxpayers, but the private companies that hold the resulting intellectual property (IP) rights are the ones that “reap the vast rewards”, and the PVA is calling for the lifting of IP protections for the vaccines ahead of a G20 summit.

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel is the richest new vaccine billionaire, followed by Ugur Sahin, his counterpart from BioNTech. Each is now worth over US$4 billion.

Others on the list include three Moderna investors, the chair of a firm contracted to manufacture and package Moderna’s doses, and the three co-founders of the Chinese vaccine producer CanSino Biologics.

People linked to India’s Cadila Healthcare and the Serum Institute of India have also seen their fortunes soar.

Anna Marriott, the health policy manager at charity Oxfam, a member of the PVA, said, “We need to urgently end these monopolies so that we can scale up vaccine production, drive down prices, and vaccinate the world.”

Winnie Byanyima, director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS said, “It’s obscene that profits continue to come before saving lives, as patent holders refuse to share their technology.”

Vaccine manufacturers claim factors such as the shortage of proper production capacities in the developing world and logistical bottlenecks are holding back the global vaccination effort. Lifting patent protections won’t fix that and may make the rollout slower, not faster, they warn.

Governments are split on the proposal. South Africa and India have asked for a waiver under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, backed by many poorer nations being left behind by richer countries.

The effectiveness of Covax, the World Health Organization vaccine-sharing scheme designed to ensure equitable access, has been underwhelming at best, suffering from both underfunding and undersupply.

The US and the EU have said they are ready to consider some form of patent suspension, with Russia, France, and Spain indicating they would support such a move. Germany and the UK, on the other hand, have expressed their opposition.

A G20 Global Health Summit being held in Rome on Friday will see the PVA applying pressure to members who defend vaccine patent protections, and are thus creating more vaccine billionaires.