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To end the global pandemic, vaccine makers must put health before profits

Many of the globally available vaccines are significantly less effective than the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines. Manufacturing of those vaccines must be expanded so that lower-income countries have access to them.

A man gets his dose of the Sinovac vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccination place for seniors, March 24, 2021, in Duque de Caxias, Brazil. The global death toll from COVID-19 has topped 5 million, nearly two years into a crisis that has not only devastated poor countries but also humbled wealthy ones with first-rate health care systems.
A man gets his dose of the Sinovac vaccine on March 24, 2021, in Duque de Caxias, Brazil. Pfizer and Moderna must do more to expand the global supply of their vaccines, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi writes.
Silvia Izquierdo/AP Photos

It has been almost one year since the first lifesaving vaccines against COVID-19 were approved for widespread use. Yet, in much of the developing world, little has changed. Despite rosy projections of global vaccine supply, the reality has been broken promises and missed deadlines.

This is a moral failing of catastrophic proportions that the world won’t soon forget — and it should be a huge concern for our domestic pandemic response.

The Biden administration’s current goal for vaccinating 70% of the world’s population is September 2022. Under the best of conditions, that slow timetable will lead to millions of unnecessary deaths abroad. In a worst-case scenario, we could see the emergence of new variants even more dangerous than Delta that wreak havoc abroad and in the US.

Because this pandemic won’t end until we’ve vaccinated everyone, everywhere, setting a goal of September 2022 for vaccinating the world ensures the pandemic won’t end in America until September 2022.

Not all vaccines are created equal, and many of the globally available vaccines are significantly less effective than the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines. Currently, more than half of the projected global vaccine supply is expected to come from China, and concerns have been raised repeatedly about the limited efficacy of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine. The mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna appear to have the edge, but they currently make up a small fraction of vaccine manufacturing capacity worldwide.

To end this pandemic as quickly as possible, we must scale up the manufacturing capacity of these mRNA vaccines, and the fastest way to do so is to license various stages of the vaccine manufacturing process to other pharmaceutical manufacturers that are capable of operationalizing this new technology.

Unfortunately, despite pleas from the Biden administration, the World Health Organization, and numerous advocacy groups, Pfizer and Moderna have strenuously resisted taking this step.

Instead, the current supply of these lifesaving mRNA vaccines has already been entirely pre-purchased through the remainder of 2021, and while the United States government does not have visibility into the order queue for these pre-purchase deals, we do know that COVAX, the global initiative to deliver vaccines worldwide, and low-income countries are not high on this list.

Countries like the United States can jump the line, but low-income countries and COVAX are at the mercy of Pfizer and Moderna to dictate when they will get the vaccines they have ordered.

Big profits, after government support

This is all the more frustrating in light of the very substantial support the United States has provided to both of these companies and the huge profits they’ve made from their vaccines. Moderna received approximately $1.3 billion in federal funds for research and development, and an additional $1.5 billion in pre-purchase deals for their unproven vaccine. And while Pfizer turned down research and development funding, they received $1.95 billion in pre-purchase deals to incentivize the development of their vaccine.

The Moderna vaccine is now expected to generate at least $20 billion in revenue this year, and the Pfizer vaccine is expected to generate at least $33 billion, making these vaccines two of the most lucrative medical products in history. In 2019, before developing its COVID-19 vaccine, Moderna reported total revenue of just $60 million.

These companies have profited immensely from the public contracts, and now, it’s high time for Pfizer and Moderna to prioritize public health.

Pfizer and Moderna must work with the U.S. government, the World Health Organization and other manufacturers to expand the production of their vaccines, and these companies must prioritize purchase orders from COVAX and low- and middle-income countries with low vaccination rates, as well as other orders that have been earmarked for donation, such as the 500 million Pfizer doses the United States recently purchased.

I urge Moderna and Pfizer to meet the unprecedented needs of this moment and work with the Biden administration and Congress to dramatically expand the global supply of these vaccines and also to deliver them where they are needed most.

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Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois, is a member of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis