The New Observer UK Society Pfizer vaccine and greed

Pfizer vaccine and greed

Government Ministers in the UK, fully understanding their supporting role in the interests of global capitalism and finance have long since been seeing any potential vaccine against Covid-19 in terms of profit and stock-market gains. From the outset the Health Secretary was telling the world how a British vaccine would be good for British business. “After all, the upside of being the first country in the world to develop a successful vaccine is so huge that I am throwing everything at it.” [1]

The CEO of Pfizer sold millions of dollars of stock on the day his company prematurely announced a “90% efficacy rate” for his vaccine. [2] The company explained that there was nothing untoward about this. He had set up an automatic selling option back in August and the shares were sold when the price reached a certain level. Obviously the two actions (the announcement and the ‘automatic’ share selling system) have no connection. The corporate media dutifully reported this shifty tale without asking any further questions.

As of today all the important questions remain unanswered about this vaccine. There is no information on its efficacy in older people (or as far as I’ve seen, in people with comorbidities) – the only categories that really matter. There is no information on how long any immunity will last. There is no information on whether it blocks non-symptomatic transmission. (The whole problem with Sars-Cov-2 is that is transmits asymptomatically; this is quite an important question). [3]

In fact the Pfizer announcement was based on preliminary data from a trial. The drug has not been verified by the regulatory agency in the US. When Russia did something like this with their vaccine they were massively condemned in the Western media. [4] The same voices (including scientists) are completely silent when a US company pulls what is essentially the same trick.

The Guardian today gives space to a puff about the vaccine based on an interview with the scientist who developed it. (No doubt it was a team effort but putting a human face to it is good PR as the PR department of Pfizer will well understand). [3] People who saw the 90% efficacy figure put out last week may be slightly surprised to read:

The scientist behind the first potential Covid-19 vaccine to clear interim clinical trials says he is “very confident” the jab will reduce transmission of the disease, perhaps by 50%, resulting in a “dramatic” reduction in cases.”

Still the shares have been sold so no problem there.

The vaccine needs to be transported at -70° C. Two shots are needed. (There is a strange fact here; it turns out that the requirement for two shots means that the value of the UK government’s pre-order has halved. Apparently, the order was based on per dose not per effective vaccine treatment. One would have thought that it was a basic piece of responsible procurement to make sure the agreement was per treatment. But, apparently, not). [5] The cold-storage requirement (apart from being good news for fridge manufacturers) means huge logistical difficulties in distribution of the vaccine. Indeed the vaccine looks like a proof-of-concept rather than a viable real-world vaccine. It could be that it is being talked up now because in the longer run governments will opt to use vaccines which do not have this cold-storage requirement. After all Pfizer invested USD 2 billion of their own money into the project and will at least want to recoup that.

However; there is one problem with this vaccine that no one (as far as I can see) in UK government or the media is facing up to. This problem applies to any vaccine which is not fully effective. Let’s imagine that it turns out that the vaccine is say 75% effective in people over the age of 80. However, recall that people in this group may be at (based on some figures I’ve seen in Business Insider and sourced to a Chinese Health Agency) [6] at 14.8% risk of death. Risk calculations are done by multiplying the chance the negative event will happen by the seriousness of the event. In this case an elderly person is being invited to normalise their life based on a 25% chance that they will put themselves at 15% risk of dying if they catch the virus. Everyone seems to concede that vaccine or not the virus will still be in circulation for some time to come, so this is a real possibility. The invitation to elderly people is “if you take this you could think about going about your normal life again but you do so at your own risk because the vaccine is only 75% likely to have worked”. Elderly people are in effect being invited to play Russian roulette with their lives. No one is talking about this completely obvious problem. This may be because they have their eyes focussed on the stock price. But I think really it is because people (government-corporate-media circles) are focussing on the effect on the population as a whole. Yes; a vaccine which is even only 50% effective may well reduce transmission enough to end the cycles of lockdowns and keep case numbers within numbers manageable by the Health Service. But as a proposition to individual elderly people it is not really that fantastic.