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Drug giants Pfizer and Moderna announced that they have developed COVID-19 vaccines which have effectiveness rates over 90%. But these are just two of the many drug companies contracted by the U.S. government to develop and distribute a vaccine to combat the pandemic through Operation Warp Speed. Unlike the other companies, however, Pfizer and Modern plan to profit off of their vaccine. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla justified this move by explaining that he wanted to “liberate [Pfizer] scientists from bureaucracy…When you get money from someone that always comes with strings…they want reports.” Moderna meanwhile has yet to offer a justification for its decision to set vaccine sales at a profit price.

Should drug companies making COVID-19 vaccines sell these vaccines at cost? Is profiting off of a public health crisis wrong? And who bears the burden of ensuring public health crises are addressed effectively: government or private industry?

Major U.S. drug companies have taken a range of financial positions when it comes to coronavirus vaccines. Companies such as Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca have pledged that they will be producing and distributing vaccines at cost. In other words, they will be charging enough to cover the costs of material and labor, rather than charging more in order to increase their corporation’s net wealth. Pfizer is in a unique position, because while they have decided to their vaccine for profit, they have also refused government money for research and development. Perhaps the most extreme stance has been taken by Moderna, who received government funding for research and development and have announced they will not sell the vaccine at cost.

Is it reasonable to expect drug companies not to make a profit off of a potentially life-saving treatment? Those who see no problem with the profiteering of vaccines might argue that these companies deserve to profit from the hard work and innovation they have put into developing these vaccines at a record speed. Pharmaceutical companies’ right to private patents of the coronavirus vaccine argue that “IP (intellectual property) is a fundamental part of our industry and if you don’t protect IP, then essentially there is no incentive for anybody to innovate.” While this logic is often deployed in the interest of free market economies, the difference in the current situation is that companies withholding patents have been heavily funded by governments across the world, and are not necessarily selling a competitive product to consumers. However, Pfizer and Moderna are both drug companies, and some might point out that their entire business model is reliant on profiting off of death and disease.

Other defenders of Pfizer and Moderna might argue that it is the government, not private industry, which is tasked with addressing public health. Perhaps the larger problem is that we do not have a public healthcare system which can adequately develop medical technology to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, when the outbreak first started in the U.S., it was very apparent that the Center for Disease Control was far less equipped to handle a public health crisis than private industry. It is also important to remember, however, that the necessity for private intervention came after the U.S.’s decision not to use the World Health Organization’s distributed tests.

Those who are against the profiteering of COVID-19 vaccines by drug companies might point to the fact that these vaccines are not simply a novel innovation but are a necessity to ensure the public good and its health. Charging more than necessary for the vaccines could limit access and prolong the pandemic, leading to more lives lost. Oxfam has taken a strong stance on the necessity of affordable vaccines, recently stating that a life-saving vaccine would be “zero per cent effective to the people who can’t access or afford it.” Critics of vaccine profiteering might also argue that it is especially wrong for companies like Moderna to sell vaccines at a profit since they received government funding for research and development.

Another criticism of vaccine profiteering might be based on the morality of profiting off of crisis in general. In a previous article, I examined the moral distinctions between other kinds of crisis capitalizers. Drug companies such as Pfizer and Moderna hold the power to develop and distribute potentially life-saving vaccines. Perhaps this situation makes the desire for profit even more insidious. While nobody has necessarily called for these companies to operate below cost, it does not seem outlandish to expect a lack of self-interest given the scope of such a serious and pressing disaster. Some might also believe that some degree of altruism should be expected in this situation as these companies have the capacity to ensure these vaccines are as accessible as possible to every member of society. The billionaires running  vaccine research made billions of dollars in the days following their announcement of a potential coronavirus vaccine. Though some have claimed that COVID-19 is a “great equalizer” it is clear this is not the case. Income inequality has gradually become one of the major political issues in America and suggesting that the wealthiest members of society donate to help the rest of us is not as radical of a moral suggestion as it has sometimes been regarded.

Even scientists who develop vaccines find what these drug companies are doing unethical. In an interview, Margaret Liu, the chairperson of the International Society for Vaccines, called Moderna “greedy” and suggested that “the taxpayers who have funded all of this should have expected better negotiation from the US government.” Others have expressed opposition to private licenses and disdain for public institutions which allowed private drug companies to sign contracts without this guarantee. Philanthropic organizations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have also been criticized for their support of pharmaceutical patents on a life-saving COVID-19 vaccine.

While it’s clear that certain pharmaceutical companies see the pandemic as an opportunity, economists have predicted that their profit will likely be short-lived. At this point, Operation Warp Speed has already contracted out funds with no strings attached. In the future, it is up to us to decide whether or not we are comfortable with public funds funneling directly into corporate profits.

Kiara Goodwine is a 2019 alumna of DePauw University and a current law student at the University of Michigan Law School. Kiara first became passionate about ethics and philosophy while serving as a Hillman Intern at the Prindle Institute. Her research on the ethics of consumption culminated in her senior honors thesis "The Ethics of Single-Use Plastics." She has also served as a head coach for a High School Ethics Bowl Team. Her current interests lie in the intersection of human rights and environmental health, dilemmas surrounding collective responsibility, and the morality of law.