- Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson… Several large pharmaceutical companies have developed vaccines against Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.
- Even though their pricing strategies are different, they all aim for a profit, at least in the long run.
- Several researchers and NGOs are pleading for the patents protecting vaccines to be lifted, in order to speed up the production of doses.
With its vaccine against Covid-19, Pfizer will benefit from a nice injection of cash into its accounts. Last month, the American pharmaceutical group indeed announced that for its only product, it planned to achieve in 2021 a turnover of 15 billion dollars (12.6 billion euros), and a profit before tax of ‘about $ 4 billion (€ 3.4 billion).
“The anti-Covid vaccine will bring in a lot of money for pharmaceutical companies,” recognizes Nathalie Coutinet, health economist and teacher-researcher at the University of Paris-13. For them, this is a great opportunity. Even Sanofi, which has fallen behind on the vaccine, has boosted its results thanks to the crisis, in particular with the sales of Doliprane ”. However, all the laboratories launched in the race against the coronavirus since early 2020 are not – at least in their communication – on the same line when it comes to profits.
The profit in question
Among the companies that are marketing (or will soon do) an anti-Covid vaccine, two trends emerge. The first, which brings together the Swedish-British AstraZeneca and the American Johnson & Johnson (which produces the Janssen vaccine), ensures not to make a short-term profit with the pandemic. Both groups have in fact repeated that they produced doses “at cost”, that is to say without making any profit.
The second trend, represented on the other side of the Atlantic by Pfizer and Moderna, assumes an immediate profit. In the summer of 2020, the CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, also considered that the idea of not making a profit was “radical and fanatic”. If he evoked a “marginal” profit for his group thanks to the vaccine, a note from an American analyst estimated for its part the commercial margin between 60 and 80%. Rather comfortable.
These two strategies are partially reflected in the prices charged to acquiring countries. In the European Union, which has negotiated for all 27 Member States, Moderna and Pfizer are in fact selling their doses the most expensive, ahead of Janssen and AstraZeneca.
Price of anti-Covid-19 vaccines per 20 Minutes
To justify their prices, Pfizer and Moderna point out that their messenger RNA vaccine is a real innovation, which deserves to be rewarded. “The private sector has found the solution for diagnostics [du Covid-19] and is in the process of finding new solutions for therapies and vaccines ”, supported the CEO of Pfizer in his interview last summer.
“Pfizer has invested nearly 2 billion [de dollars], they will be reimbursed quite quickly, comments Christelle Cottenceau, project director at the Alcimed cabinet, interviewed by AFP. But they started to invest without knowing what they were going to find ”. The CEO of Moderna, for his part, considered in November 2020 that his firm was offering “a fair price when we consider the cost to the health system when a person becomes seriously ill with Covid-19”.
These two arguments – innovation and avoided costs for the community – are seriously questioned by Nathalie Coutinet. “Moderna recognizes that its pricing is not done according to the cost of research and development of the vaccine, but according to what the States are prepared to pay, she analyzes. This entails a risk of over-profit to the detriment of the common good that is public health ”. As for innovation, “research on messenger RNA is old, it is not private laboratories that have developed it, but public research. Moreover, they are relatively inexpensive to produce ”.
Would Pfizer and Moderna then be the villains of history, facing the “white knights” AstraZeneca and Janssen? The reality is obviously more complex. “If the strategies of the labs may be different from the point of view of the technology used or of the communication, they have on the other hand the same economic strategy”, judge Quentin Ravelli, researcher at the CNRS and author of a thesis on the practices laboratories *. Namely: to earn money thanks to their vaccine. Thus, all the laboratories do not hesitate to make their prices fluctuate according to customers and their demand (number of doses, deadlines, etc.), as our infographic shows:
Vaccine prices in the world per 20 Minutes
“AstraZeneca can open up markets with discounts or cost prices,” continues the researcher. But the mass of potential consumers is such that this will allow very high profitability. In addition, there is no obligation of transparency on production costs. It is therefore very difficult to know whether a vaccine is actually sold at cost. ”In addition, last October, the Financial Times revealed a document showing that AstraZeneca planned to increase its prices in July 2021, considering that the pandemic would then be “over”.
For Johnson & Johnson (J & J), handing out a cost-effective Covid vaccine is the perfect opportunity to improve a somewhat tarnished brand image. In the United States, the company is indeed under the blow of legal proceedings concerning its talc, suspected of being responsible for cancers, and its marketing methods, accused of having participated in the opiate crisis which led to the explosion. overdoses. As for AstraZeneca, this low price strategy could come to an end quickly: if it is necessary to re-vaccinate or fight against the variants of Covid-19, “we could start to consider new opportunities from 2022”, explained at the beginning of March the financial director of J & J, Joseph Wolk.
The laboratories are therefore not that different from each other. Especially when one is interested in the question of patents, which make it possible to protect the intellectual property of vaccines, and therefore to prevent their “copying” by any other actor.
“This model seems delusional to me in times of pandemic, where you have to vaccinate as quickly as possible,” says Nathalie Coutinet. Some states have largely funded lab research on anti-Covid vaccines. It would therefore be necessary to have vaccines free of rights or providing for a slight remuneration in return, an “ex officio license”. But countries which have a powerful pharmaceutical industry, like the United States, do not want to hear about it ”. “It would seem logical to me to lift industrial secrecy,” continues Quentin Ravelli. The longer we wait, the more victims of the Covid are ”.
Is the lifting of patents really useful?
Opposite, the laboratories advance the argument that the end of patents would undermine innovation. “The adventure of the drug is costly, risky, with a great degree of uncertainty (…) It must be protected by a patent in order to ensure its holder a return on investment through the monopoly conferred”, explained in a text published in 2010 Pierick Rousseau, director of intellectual property for the Pierre Fabre pharmaceutical group.
“How would the lifting of patents make it possible to speed up vaccination? You have to explain it to me, says Frédéric Bizard, professor of economics at ESCP and president of the Health Institute. Currently, production capacities for vaccines are saturated. For example, in Russia, where the vaccine [Spoutnik V] is developed by a public institution, you also have production problems when there is no license problem. In addition, anti-Covid vaccines are fairly inexpensive per unit, and the Covax system allows doses to be delivered to the poorest countries. So the price problem does not arise ”.
For Quentin Ravelli, “on the contrary, we must reverse the reasoning: the fewer patents there are that prevent researchers from pooling their work, the more ideas circulate and allow real results to be obtained”.
A form of sharing in the name of public health that many NGOs in Europe are also calling for. A petition called “no profits with the pandemic” aims to collect a million signatures from EU citizens, in order to force the European Commission to look into the subject.
* “The strategy of the bacteria. A survey at the heart of the pharmaceutical industry ”(Seuil, 2015).