Health over profit : corona shouldn't become a cash cow for Big Pharma

Sofie Merckx and Anne Delespaul

Thousands of scientists worldwide are searching for medicines and vaccines against Covid-19. Big Pharma is also pulling out all the stops in order to make the most of the pandemic that is now dominating our lives. However, it is the responsibility of the large pharmaceutical companies that this treatment is not yet available today.

Health over profit

Sofie Merckx and Anne Delespaul, both general practitioners at Geneeskunde voor het Volk (Medicine for the People) , believe that those companies should not be allowed to make a profit from the fight against corona. The PTB-PVDA submitted a resolution in the House of Representatives aimed at preventing by means of compulsory licences that a vaccine or a drug could be monopolized by a patent from a pharmaceutical company.

For a long time Big Pharma wasn't interested in potential corona outbreaks at all

"These are the world championships of virology", says virologist Marc Van Ranst (1). Scientists around the world are working around the clock on the development of a vaccine and are looking for medicines to treat corona patients. Pharma giants Johnson&Johnson, GSK and Pfizer frantically compete with each other to be the first to market their product. This activity contrasts sharply with the situation before the outbreak of Covid-19, when there were barely six clinical trials of coronaviruses at pharmaceutical companies.

After earlier outbreaks of corona variants SARS (2002) and MERS (2012) however, several scientists were close to a breakthrough in vaccine development. Among them the team of Prof. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine in Texas. However, the search for the necessary resources to bring research into the clinical phase bumped into a wall of disinterest (2). In total scientists developed about 84 candidate vaccines (3) for SARS and MERS, one by one they ended up in the fridge. The same goes for the antiviral drugs, states virologist Johan Neyts: "If we had invested in a virus inhibitor against those known variants, it might also have worked against the new virus. Why didn't that happen? Nobody listened" (4).

Why this total disinterest? "The signals from the market were wrong", Noam Chomsky puts his finger on the wound (5). For the shareholders, profitability is the only driver, not the real needs of the population. Big Pharma searches the market, looking for the new goose with the golden eggs to guarantee the highest possible profit margins. Especially in non-pandemic times, you won't find these with vaccines or virus inhibitors. Former GSK top executive Debruyne doesn't mince his words: "This lack of revenue is a major challenge, because with other projects these companies can earn much more" (6). What might these 'other projects' be? "For Big Pharma, it's more profitable to make a new body cream than a vaccine", Chomsky sums it up (7).

Corona as the new holy grail

Now that it becomes clear what an enormous market is opening up, the large pharmaceutical companies suddenly do see the holy grail in corona. While all sectors of the economy are currently affected by the consequences of the pandemic, for pharmaceuticals there is talk of a 'business opportunity' (8). Look at pharma giant Johnson&Johnson not waiting for the results of clinical trials to start production of tens of millions of doses (9). "A calculated guess", so they say (10). The announcement alone increased Johnson&Johnson's stock market share by 8%. If there is a lot of profit to be made, shareholders are willing to come up with the necessary money.

The US company Gilead Sciences also grabbed the new 'business opportunity' shamelessly. Following the WHO's proclamation of remdesivir as one of the 'most promising drug candidates' (11), Gilead quickly registered the drug as an 'orphan drug' (12) intended to treat rare diseases. Now Gilead can have all the profit. Among other things, it has the right to a 7-year monopoly on this drug, which can push the price up considerably. Under great public pressure, the pharma giant backed out of it at the last minute(13). But it should be clear: Big Pharma pulls all the tricks out of the bag to capitalise on this health crisis.

The burden on the community, the profit for Big Pharma?

Almost all scientific breakthroughs are the result of subsidized research carried out at our universities and public research institutes. Bearing witness to that also is the key role of the Catholic University Leuven's Rega Institute and their top scientists in corona research (14). What these researchers rightly fear is that, at the end of the day, the pharmaceutical companies would fully appropriate this public investment and what should result in a produce in public hands would eventually be privatised by big pharma.

The pharmaceutical industry makes eager use of its tailor-made patent law. Supposedly created to stimulate research and innovation, we see in practice how patent legislation is mainly misused to charge excessive prices for medicines that are completely unrelated to the real research and development costs.

The pharma lobby is working overtime today to ensure that companies keep their options completely open to sell their products at the highest possible price. At the beginning of March in the United States, for example, this lobby succeeded in blocking a number of legal provisions allowing the government to intervene in the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies or to intervene in the pricing of medicines and vaccines. (15) European government subsidies for the development of medicines (16) also lack explicit guarantees to make the developed products financially accessible and widely available.

The protagonists are trying to reassure public opinion today. They let it be known that they are not interested in money and only have public health in mind. Experience teaches us that we can have our doubts about this. Novartis' attitude towards baby Pia [a Belgian child suffering from a rare muscular disease] is still fresh in our memory. With a price tag of 1.9 million euros, the vital treatment Zolgensma became the most expensive medicine in the world. Novartis refers to the high research costs, but conceals the fact that it was not they themselves who made the scientific breakthrough, but the public research lab Genethon. Funded by crowdfunding, no less. Same story, over and over again. We have to put a stop to this, and we have to do it now.

Health over profit: let's put an end to the market logic

Resistance to these ubiquitous laws of the market is growing from the bottom up. Witness the open letter in which Médecins Sans Frontières and Doctors of the World, together with some 60 other civil society organisations, call for public health to be put above the hunger for profit as a matter of urgency (17). A paradigm shift is indeed required.

There is a need for cooperation rather than competition. All those involved must share the research work in real time. By relying on the power of collective research, valuable energy and time can be saved. Cooperation is also what Costa Rica proposes in its call to the WHO to create a 'patent pool' that will collect all rights to data, knowledge and technologies useful in the fight against Covid-19 (18). The Netherlands is already part of this story, now it's up to Belgium (19).

The government must enforce adequate supplies and the lowest possible price for the treatment. This can be done through compulsory licenses. This principle of compulsory licensing was commanded by Nelson Mandela in the late 1990s to break the monopoly of pharmaceutical multinationals on HIV medication. Today Canada (20), Chile (21) and Ecuador (22) already took action in this sense. In our country it is also possible, but our government has always hesitated to apply it. That has to change now. In order to provide social security reimbursement and to make the treatment free of charge for the patient. Big Pharma should not be allowed to make a single euro profit in the fight against corona.

Now let's act fast to beat corona together. And then let's tackle the functioning of the pharmaceutical industry, which is incurably ill. Let's bring the research and development but also its results into public hands.


1 Humo, 14/03/2020

2 The Guardian, 27/03/2020


4 VRT, 14/03/2020

5 Chomsky, 04/04/2020

6 Trends, 19/03/2020

7 Idem

8 The intercept, 13/03/2020


10 De Morgen, 02/04/2020

11, 22/03/2020

12 The intercept, 23/03/2020

13 The intercept, 25/03/2020


15 Politico, 05/03/2020

16 Innovative Medicines Initiative

17 European Public Service Union, 25/03/2020