Coronavirus: COVID-19 pandemic has turned big pharma executives into billionaires

Nine pharmaceutical executives have become billionaires thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to campaigners who want vaccine patents waived to help end it.

The People's Vaccine Alliance, which includes the likes of Oxfam, UNAIDS and Global Justice Now, says "excessive profits" are behind the windfalls.

"The highly effective vaccines we have are thanks to massive amounts of taxpayers' money so it can’t be fair that private individuals are cashing in while hundreds of millions face second and third waves completely unprotected," said Heidi Chow, senior policy and campaigns manager at Global Justice Now.

There have been calls from poorer countries to waive patents on vaccines, allowing anyone with the know-how to make them without financial penalty. The US recently joined them, and New Zealand - despite prior opposition - quickly followed. 

The plans are still opposed by many rich nations. 

"As thousands of people die each day in India, it is utterly repugnant that the UK, Germany and others want to put the interests of the billionaire owners of Big Pharma ahead of the desperate needs of millions," said Chow.

The nine new billionaires, according to the People's Vaccine Alliance, are (all figures in US$): 

  • Stéphane Bancel - Moderna's CEO (worth $4.3 billion)
  • Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of BioNTech (worth $4 billion)
  • Timothy Springer - an immunologist and founding investor of Moderna (worth $2.2bn)
  • Noubar Afeyan - Moderna’s Chairman (worth $1.9 billion)
  • Juan Lopez-Belmonte - Chairman of ROVI, a company with a deal to manufacture and package the Moderna vaccine (worth $1.8 billion)
  • Robert Langer - a scientist and founding investor in Moderna (worth $1.6 billion)
  • Zhu Tao co-founder and chief scientific officer at CanSino Biologics (worth $1.3 billion)
  • Qiu Dongxu, co-founder and senior vice president at CanSino Biologics (worth $1.2)
  • Mao Huihua, also co-founder and senior vice president at CanSino Biologics (worth $1 billion).

"These billionaires are the human face of the huge profits many pharmaceutical corporations are making from the monopoly they hold on these vaccines," said Anna Marriott, Oxfam health policy manager.

"These vaccines were funded by public money and should be first and foremost a global public good, not a private profit opportunity. We need to urgently end these monopolies so that we can scale up vaccine production, drive down prices and vaccinate the world."

Some of the vaccine makers, including Pfizer, have pledged to donate billions of doses to poorer countries. Moderna has had more than US$ billion in taxpayer funding, and while it's previously said it wouldn't enforce patents for the duration of the pandemic, Global Justice Now says it hasn't shared the technology. 

Eight existing billionaires with extensive portfolios in big pharma have increased their wealth by a combined US$32 billion, the People's Vaccine Alliance added.

The data was sourced from the annual Forbes Rich List.

The longer the virus spreads, the more chance it has to mutate into forms that can evade existing vaccines. 

"While the companies making massive profits from COVID vaccines are refusing to share their science and technology with others in order to increase the global vaccine supply, the world continues to face the very real risk of mutations that could render the vaccines we have ineffective and put everyone at risk all over again," said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS, the UN agency working to eradicate another awful disease, AIDS.

"The pandemic has come at a terrible human cost, so it is obscene that profits continue to come before saving lives."