Creating Vaccine Billionaires instead of Vaccinating Billions
By Anthony Kamande
The wealth of nine new COVID-19 vaccine billionaires would be enough to vaccinate everyone in all low-income countries or all of sub-Saharan Africa.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Moderna, BioNTech and CanSino, the makers of successful Covid-19 vaccines, have created at least nine new vaccine billionaires with a combined net wealth of $19.3 billion, our analysis of Forbes 2021 billionaires list shows.
To put things into perspective, the amount is sufficient to buy enough vaccines to fully inoculate nearly everyone in sub-Saharan Africa[i], a region whose vaccinations as of May 2 was a dismal 0.7%, according to numbers from Our Word in Data.
Apart from the new vaccine billionaires, a further eight existing billionaires with extensive portfolios in the companies making COVID-19 vaccine saw their wealth rise by a massive $32.2 billion.
The stock prices of many of the pharmaceutical corporations manufacturing the COVID-19 vaccine has been on a rising trajectory since last year, and particularly for BioNTech and Moderna, the makers of the innovative mRNA vaccines.
Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s successful mRNA vaccines are set to become two of the three bestselling pharmaceutical products in the world and the companies are projecting revenues of $33.2 billion in 2021 from these vaccines alone.
Their vaccines are also the most expensive, ranging from $13.50 to $74 per course, with both firms looking to increase prices. In an investor call, Pfizer cited between $150 and $170 a dose as the typical price it receives for vaccines. This is despite a study from the Imperial College in London showing that the cost of production of new mRNA vaccines could be between 60 cents and $2 a dose.
The benefits of these COVID-19 vaccines have been privatised, despite the huge public investment without which they would not have happened. COVID-19 vaccines could not have been a success were it not for massive governments investments in R&D to the tune of an estimated $100 billion across all vaccine platforms, in addition to years of investments in technology that has benefited the rollout of mRNA vaccines.
The Cambridge Massachusetts based biotech company Moderna, up until COVID-19 struck, was a small little-known company that didn’t have any manufacturing capacity, save for small batches for clinical trials. Its two-dose mRNA vaccine, 94.1% effective, has been a remarkable success against the virus. Now a household name, Moderna created four new billionaires in the past year, with a combined net wealth of $10 billion.
Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s CEO is now worth $4.3 billion. Bancel’s stake in the publicly-traded company is about 8%. Timothy Springer, one of the founding investors of Moderna and who controls a 3.5% stake in the company is worth $2.2 billion. Moderna’s chairman Noubar Afeyan’s net wealth is $1.9 billion. Last on Moderna’s new billionaires’ list is Robert Langer, also one of the founding members of Moderna. His net wealth is $1.6 billion. Lager’s stake in the company is 3%.
Apart from the “Moderna quartet,” Juan Lopez-Belmonte, the chairman of ROVI saw his wealth grow to $1.8 billion. ROVI and Moderna signed a partnership agreement in July last year for ROVI to manufacture and package the Moderna vaccine.
Moderna benefited from the US government investments, both financially and in terms of technology, having received an estimated $5.75 billion of public money to accelerate its mRNA vaccine development, effectively co-developing the mRNA vaccine with the support of the National Institutes of Health, a US public agency.
Now out of loss-making territory, its net income in the first quarter of 2021 to 31 March was $1.2 billion, up from a net loss of $124 million for the same period last year.
Facing mounting pressure on its unequal vaccine distribution, in early May Moderna signed an agreement to supply COVAX, a global facility designed to ensure vaccine distribution to poorer countries, at “Moderna’s lowest tiered price”. It says it will deliver 34 million in the last quarter of 2021 and the remaining 466 million in 2022. If these COVAX doses are delivered in 2021, the proportion of doses Moderna would have allocated to low- and middle-income countries would still be only 5% this year.
Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, 95% effective , was the first mRNA vaccine to be approved in the world. The mRNA technology was developed by BioNTech. This success has seen the share price of BioNTech, the little known biotech company based in Germany until COVID-19 hit, soar and in the process, the company produced a new billionaire in additions to a new vaccine.
BioNTech CEO and Founder Ugur Sahin is now a vaccine billionaire. Ugur’s net wealth is $4 billion. He controls 17% of the public traded company. Born in 1965 in Turkey but migrated to Germany four years later, Ugur, together with his wife Özlem Türeci, both professors of medicine, had been working on mRNA for 30 years, long before COVID-19 first emerged. In January 2020 when the virus was still unknown to the world and was yet to hit Europe, Ugur used his decades-long expertise on mRNA to design the vaccine candidate which has gone on to become one of the most widely used.
The Tianjin based biotech company CanSinoBio single-shot vaccine for COVID-19, co-developed with the Beijing Institute of Technology, was the first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved in China at the end of February 2021. The vaccine is 65.7% effective.
The success has seen the company create three billionaires in the last year. The company co-founder and chief scientific officer Zhu Tao is worth $1.3 billion, while Qiu Dongxu and Mao Huinhoa, also cofounders and senior vice presidents in the company are now worth $1.2 and $1 billion respectively. The CanSino trio enjoy a combined net wealth of $3.5 billion.
Anthony Kamande is Oxfam International’s Project Coordinator, Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index. He is part of the team forming the Peoples Vaccine Alliance.
[i] The average vaccine cost, $19, is based on the median average of the 5 leading vaccine producers. However, the prices should be considerably lower and the $19 is for illustration purposes. Sub-Saharan African population is estimated at 1.094 billion.