Pfizer, whose global reputation as one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies has been bolstered by its development of a COVID-19 vaccine, has a record of exerting undue influence on low- and middle-income nations and international organizations to pursue its intellectual property rights and financial interests at the expense of global efforts to ensure that poor countries are able to access the company’s vaccine, according to independent news reports from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and In These Times.
In February 2021, Madlen Davies, Rosa Furneaux, Iván Ruiz, and Jill Langlois of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) reported that Pfizer has essentially held Latin American governments to ransom for access to its lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine. In negotiations with Argentina and Brazil, Pfizer demanded that the nations offer sovereign assets—such as federal bank reserves, military bases, and embassy buildings—as collateral for any liability resulting from future legal cases. Officials from several Latin American countries spoke with the BIJ on condition of anonymity, due to confidentiality agreements that Pfizer has required. One national official who participated in negotiations with Pfizer described its demands as “high-level bullying” that “held to ransom” the government attempting to access life-saving vaccines. Consequently, legal experts expressed concern that Pfizer’s demands “amount to an abuse of power,” the BIJ reported.
Some protections against liability are conventional for pharmaceutical companies that administer vaccines during an epidemic—but those protections do not typically indemnify a company for fraud, gross negligence, mismanagement, or failure to follow good manufacturing practices, as Pfizer has demanded in its deals with a number of Latin American nations. Shortly after the Argentinian Ministry of Health began negotiations with Pfizer Argentina in June 2020, the nation’s Congress had to enact a new law in order to meet Pfizer’s demands for indemnity. The Argentinian government believed that, at the least, Pfizer ought to be accountable for acts of negligence on its part in the delivery and distribution of the vaccine, but, instead of offering any compromise, Pfizer “demanded more and more,” according to one government negotiator. That was when Pfizer called for Argentina to put up sovereign assets as collateral. Argentina broke off negotiations with Pfizer, leaving the nation’s leaders at that time without a vaccine supply for its people.
Overall, Pfizer has negotiated with more than one hundred countries and has supply agreements with nine Latin American and Caribbean countries—Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay. “The terms of those deals are unknown,” the BIJ reported.
In December 2020, just after the United States approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, In These Times’s Sarah Lazare filed a detailed report on the history of the pharmaceutical giant’s opposition to expanding vaccine access to poor countries. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Lazare wrote, Pfizer “played a critical role in establishing the very [World Trade Organization] intellectual property rules that it is now invoking to argue against freeing up vaccine supplies for poor countries.” Dating back to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations between 1986 and 1993, which led to the 1995 establishment of the World Trade Organization, Pfizer promoted the idea that “international trade should be contingent on strong intellectual property rules,” Lazare wrote. Countries that opted not to comply with US intellectual property rules would be cast as engaging in “piracy.” This trade-based approach to intellectual property served to protect Pfizer’s bottom line, by reinforcing the monopoly power of the pharmaceutical company and other US industries.
“It is difficult to think of a clearer case for suspending intellectual property laws than a global pandemic,” Lazare wrote. But Pfizer is “not alone” in opposing any pause on intellectual property rules. Pharma trade groups and other companies—including Moderna, which has developed another leading COVID-19 vaccine—have “come out in full force” against proposals to relax, even temporarily, the “stringent” intellectual property rules that restrict access to the vaccine, Lazare reported. As a result, a map of global poverty and a map of countries lacking vaccine access would reveal “a virtual one-to-one match,” she noted. This, she concluded, “is a logical outcome for a system designed from the onset to reinforce long-existing power structures informed by an entrenched legacy of colonialism.” That system leaves “majority black and brown countries [. . .] to suffer and die while wealthy Global North countries far exceed their needed capacity.”
A May 2021 In These Times report noted that, despite President Biden’s April pledge to donate 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to countries in need once the Food and Drug Administration completes its review of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, there will still be a shortfall of vaccines in nations such as Argentina, as intellectual property restrictions prevent the countries from manufacturing their own vaccine supplies. “[C]onvincing Big Pharma to directly share its medical tools and technologies in the Global South by suspending these patent rights” would do “far more” than Biden’s promise of donated vaccine doses to protect people from the pandemic’s deadly consequences, In These Times reported.
Pfizer’s dealings in South America are not exactly secret, yet corporate media outlets have either failed or refused to cover Pfizer’s demands on countries such as Argentina. In December 2020, CNBC published an article about how US citizens would be unable to sue Pfizer or Moderna if their COVID vaccines produced severe side effects. CNBC’s coverage explained how both companies received legal immunity from the United States, but made no mention of the methods Pfizer has employed to compel even stronger legal immunity from South American countries. As of May 2021, there has been no corporate media coverage of Pfizer’s actual dealings in South America or how the pharmaceutical giant helped establish the global intellectual property standards it now invokes to protect its control over access to the vaccine.
Big Pharma has a long, underreported track record of leaving developing nations’ medical needs unfulfilled, as Project Censored has previously documented.
Madlen Davies, Rosa Furneaux, Iván Ruiz, and Jill Langlois, “‘Held to Ransom’: Pfizer Demands Governments Gamble with State Assets to Secure Vaccine Deal,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, February 23, 2021.
Sarah Lazare, “Pfizer Helped Create the Global Patent Rules. Now It’s Using Them to Undercut Access to the Covid Vaccine,” In These Times, December 17, 2020.
Student Researchers: Ryan Jackson, Mohammad Haider, and John Deery (Queens College, City University of New York)
Faculty Evaluator: Roopali Mukherjee (Queens College, City University of New York)
Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen.