While the COVID-19 pandemic continued to claim lives in 2021, lower-income nations in need of lifesaving vaccines were targeted and exploited by the monopoly pharmaceutical brand Pfizer. Throughout 2021, Pfizer forced lower-income nations into unfair contracts using tactics that allowed the company to delay COVID-19 vaccine supplies and dramatically increase revenue, according to research published in October 2021 by Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that investigated Pfizer and its negotiations with lower-income nations.
Based on a study of Pfizer’s unredacted contracts with various nations, Public Citizen’s report, “Pfizer’s Power,” reveals that Pfizer has tried to “silence governments, throttle supply, shift risk and maximize profits in the middle of a global public health crisis.” The report confirms and extends the investigation conducted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published in February 2021, which highlighted Pfizer’s “bullying” negotiation tactics. Zain Rizvi, author of Public Citizen’s report, told Democracy Now! that Pfizer is “expected to make $30 billion this year from the COVID vaccine alone.”
According to Rizvi, Pfizer can generate such profits due to a contract that was made in the United States 25 years ago which prescribed that monopoly powers may be allotted to corporations for life-saving technologies. However, this contract has allowed Pfizer to repeatedly abuse its monopoly powers without any checks. As Rivzi noted in her Public Citizen article, “Pfizer’s ability to control key decisions reflects the power imbalance in vaccine negotiations. Under the vast majority of contracts, Pfizer’s interests come first.”
Pfizer has provisions within its contracts that prevent governments from accepting vaccine donations or distributing them without the Pfizer’s consent. If countries are found to be donating vaccines, Pfizer will terminate its contract with that country. Pfizer’s unfair business tactics have slowed the distribution of the vaccine. Underscoring the significant implications of these tactics, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! stated: “I mean, we’re not talking about the delivery of dresses here. We’re talking about a delivery of life over death.”
Pfizer also demanded that lower-income nations put up federal bank reserves, embassy buildings, or military bases as a form of insurance against future legal cases if adverse effects were to occur. “It’s outrageous. It really is a stunning indictment of our international intellectual property system,” Rivzi told Democracy Now! “No one corporation should be able to decide whether a sovereign government gets access to a life-saving vaccine in the middle of a pandemic.”
International intellectual property protections parameters fostering an environment where Pfizer’s unfair tactics can flourish. According to Rizvi, the Biden Administration could call on Pfizer to renegotiate it terms, or it could share the vaccine recipe under the Defense Production Act. The United States also has the power to quickly secure a broad waiver of intellectual property rules (TRIPS waiver) at the World Trade Organization, which would effectively share the vaccine recipe as well. Rizvi’s position is that high-income nations have a duty to intervene and put a stop to Pfizer’s tactics.
US corporate news outlets have provided limited but slanted coverage of this story. For example, although an October 2021 report in the Washington Post mentioned Public Citizen’s findings and included points made by Rizvi, its coverage also included claims made by a Pfizer spokesperson, Sharon Castillo, who characterized these types of contracts as “standard.” The Washington Post chose to take Castillo’s word for it, despite claims made by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that these parameters are “not typical” and “an abuse of power.”
Amy Goodman, interview with Zain Rivzi, “Pfizer’s Power: Drug Giant Silenced Governments & Throttled COVID Vaccine Supply to Maximize Profit,” Democracy Now!, October 22, 2021.
Zain Rizvi, “Pfizer’s Power,” Public Citizen, October 19, 2021.
Student Researcher: Sophia Garner (Loyola Marymount University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kyra Pearson (Loyola Marymount University)
Editor’s Note: For previous coverage by Project Censored on this topic, see Pfizer Bullies South American Governments over COVID-19 Vaccine, story #8 in State of the Free Press 2022.