Pfizer has announced it is to supply all its current and future patent-protected medicines and vaccines on a not-for-profit basis to 45 lower-income countries and is talking to other big drugmakers about similar steps.
Announcing an “accord for a healthier world” at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, the New York-based pharma firm pledged to provide all its products that are available in the US and Europe on a cost basis to 1.2 billion people in all 27 low-income countries such as Afghanistan and Ethiopia, plus 18 lower-middle-income countries including Ghana.
Pfizer has previously been accused of “pandemic profiteering” over the huge profits it has generated from coronavirus-related medicines over the past two years. It made almost $15bn in sales in only three months from the Covid-19 vaccine it developed with Germany’s BioNTech and its new Covid pill for people who are at high risk of severe disease.
“We are living in a time where science is increasingly demonstrating the ability to take on the world’s most devastating diseases,” Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive, said. “Unfortunately, there exists a tremendous health equity gap in our world that determines which of us can use these innovations and which of us cannot.”
He told the WEF gathering in Switzerland: “I’m certain that the other pharmaceutical companies will follow. I’ve spoken to several of the CEOs and they want to be part of it. So medicines will be available I hope but it’s not going to be enough. We need to also work on the ground for diagnosis, treatments, and for that we need the help of WHO, Doctors without Borders and many other organisations.”
In Davos, George Poe Willliams, a nurse from Liberia, staged a “clap for pharma profits” in protest at the profits made by drugmakers, some of which, including Pfizer, refuse to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines.
Williams said: “If I wanted to earn what Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla made last year, I would have to work every single day until 6100 AD. But what makes me really furious is that Bourla and many of his billionaire buddies here at WEF are doing all they can to block our demands for a patent waiver – just so they can make even more money.”
Bourla received $24m in pay, perks and stock options for 2021 when the company’s full-year profit more than doubled, up 15% on 2020.
Pfizer has said others would struggle to produce its mRNA vaccine – one of only two on the market – as it involves more than 280 materials from 86 suppliers in 19 countries. Moderna, which makes the other mRNA Covid jab, has promised not to enforce its coronavirus vaccine patents in some low- and middle-income countries.
Under its new initiative, Pfizer is working closely with healthcare officials in Rwanda, Ghana, Malawi, Senegal and Uganda to provide expertise to support diagnosis, education and training of doctors and nurses and improvements to infrastructure to ensure all medicines and vaccines can reach those in need. Lessons learned from these five countries will then be applied to the rollout to the other 40 countries.
Appearing alongside Bourla was Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, who said: “Rapid and affordable access to the most advanced medicines and vaccines is the cornerstone of global health equity. Pfizer’s commitment under the accord sets a new standard which we hope to see emulated by others.”
Lazarus Chakwera, the president of Malawi, called it a “historic and unprecedented accord” that brings together decision-makers from governments, the private sector and civil society. “It is not a handout but a real partnership” that puts “human progress ahead of business profits and political posturing”, he said.
Pfizer is working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop new products such as vaccines to prevent the deadly Group B streptococcus, and for respiratory syncytial virus, which can be serious for children and older people.
Also on the panel, Bill Gates said: “This type of accord is a very good model, it’s going to get medicines out … Global health equity has made progress; we saw with Covid, we’re not there.”
The Microsoft co-founder told the WEF: “The Ukrainian situation is stretching the world’s resources and we see that in terms of resources for health and food, and availability of fertiliser. The tragedy of the war goes far beyond the battlefield The pandemic was a setback, we have more malaria deaths now than we had three years ago, routine vaccination numbers went down a fair bit.”
The billionaire and philanthropist said the dream was to make a powerful malaria vaccine, as the vaccine funded by the Gates foundation and developed by GSK was too short in its duration and protection.