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Golden jabs: how the vaccine giants are cashing in billions, from the Pharmacitical groups

Moderna’s chairman is unapologetic about the price of its Covid vaccine. Like Pfizer, its American peer and rival, the Boston-based biotech company has jacked up the price of its jabs as countries race to order booster shots for next year. “This mRNA was not some academic science that suddenly we found ourselves using to make a vaccine,” said Noubar Afeyan, referring to the underlying technology. “There were ten years, over $2 billion of investment and hundreds of scientists working for many years to make all this possible.”

Afeyan spoke to The Sunday Times as Moderna felt the sharp end of a debate over vaccine prices. Countries are scrambling to secure booster jabs amid the rapid spread of the Delta variant, building stockpiles for possible waves next year. Moderna, which has agreed to supply 17 million doses to the UK, is now said to be charging the EU $25.50 (£18.40) a dose, up from $22.50. Pfizer is said to be charging the UK £22 a dose for booster jabs, compared with £18 previously.

Afeyan, who would not comment on the specifics, emphasised the billions of dollars that Moderna had ploughed into the vaccine’s development as justification for its rising prices. “We’ve made sure every aspect [of the development] takes whatever capital we have,” said the Lebanese-born entrepreneur, who founded Moderna 11 years ago.

Approval in the United States for Moderna’s vaccine, in December last year, was the culmination of more than a decade’s work for Afeyan and the venture capital firm he runs, Flagship Pioneering. Moderna’s jab is one of three approved for use in the UK. The company has promised to manufacture a billion doses worldwide this year. However, the narrative is shifting towards why big pharma companies are raising prices while developed countries order booster jabs and millions of people in low and middle-income countries are yet to receive a single dose.

Less than a third of the world’s population have had at least one dose, with 16 per cent fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, which gathers numbers from governments. Last week, Chile joined the US, France, Germany and Israel in introducing booster jabs, despite a plea from the World Health Organisation for a moratorium on these until the end of next month to focus on getting more initial doses to poorer countries.

Afeyan defended the ordering of booster jabs, saying that increased supplies from Moderna, Pfizer and others meant they could deliver both extra shots and first shots to poorer countries. “If they [booster jabs] were to happen at the direct expense of getting vaccines to the unvaccinated across the world, then that would be a harsh trade-off,” he said.

For some of the companies behind the successful Covid vaccines, the profits have been vast. Pfizer, which has developed an mRNA vaccine with the German company BioNTech, raised its guidance for annual vaccine revenues by nearly a third to $33.5 billion in July. It said earlier this year that it expected to make $6 billion in profits, but did not specify how much of this was from the vaccine.

BioNTech raised forecasts for full-year sales last week to €15.9 billion, against its previous prediction of €12.4 billion, while profits rose to almost €2.8 billion. And Moderna said that sales reached $4.4 billion in the second quarter of this year. The excitement around Moderna’s mRNA technology, based on slivers of genetic code that instruct human cells to produce proteins, has sparked a frenzy among retail investors: last year, it was one of the most popular stocks on the Robinhood share-trading app.

The golden jabs have also proved lucrative for Afeyan and his peers. Afeyan, who fled Lebanon for Montreal with his family in 1975 during the civil war, now has a net worth of $1.9 billion, according to Forbes magazine. Stéphane Bancel, 49, chief executive of Moderna, is worth an estimated $12.5 billion and sold $98 million worth of shares last year.

For Dr Ugur Sahin and Dr Özlem Türeci, the couple behind BioNTech, their vaccine has brought a paper fortune. While they are yet to have sold any shares in the firm since the start of the pandemic, the company’s stock has soared to $91.5 billion. Sahin, 55, is worth an estimated $14.8 billion, says Forbes.

The Covid crisis has made millionaires of the scientists behind the Oxford vaccine, developed by Astra Zeneca and Oxford University. Professor Sarah Gilbert, instrumental in developing the vaccine, owned about 5 per cent of the company that owns the intellectual property to the technology. Vaccitech listed on Nasdaq in April and is valued at about $500 million.

For the world’s biggest drugmakers, pushed to the forefront of the battle against Covid-19, the crisis has buoyed public sentiment after years of pressure in the US over pricing. Pascal Soriot, the chief executive of Astra, won plaudits for promising to develop the Oxford vaccine at cost price during the pandemic. French vaccine specialist Sanofi offered its factories to Pfizer to boost production after its own vaccine with Glaxo Smith Kline was delayed. Glaxo has so far failed to develop a jab for Covid — but is hoping that its partnership with Sanofi will allow it to play a role in booster jabs.

Earlier this year, Pfizer paid the TV channel National Geographic to produce a glowing documentary, Mission Possible: The Race for a Vaccine, which featured interviews with the company’s scientists and its chief executive, Albert Bourla, 59. He explained that he had told scientists there was an “open chequebook, no questions asked”.

Staff were told to begin manufacturing the vaccine before it was clear that it worked, he said.

“Do it all at once and see if it works,” he declared. “If not, it’s only money.”

It turned out that Pfizer actually cared a lot about money. Along with the UK price increases, it emerged this month that the company had raised the price of its jab by more than a quarter in a deal with the European Union for 900 million doses over the next two years, with an option to double it. Pfizer and BioNTech are charging the EU €19.50 a jab, up from €15.50 in the first deal.

Britain has ordered 35 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine at a cost of £1 billion after ministers warned that the UK could run out of jabs next year, leading to further lockdowns.

There are likely to be further increases. In February, Pfizer’s finance director, Frank D’Amelio, said that it was going to “get more on price” after the most intense first stage of the pandemic was over. D’Amelio told analysts that under one deal — with the US — Pfizer was charging $19.50 a dose, against the $150 or $175 it typically charged for a vaccine.

Pfizer has said that it is using a “tiered pricing formula”, based in part on order volumes and delivery dates.

There is still debate over whether people will need an annual vaccine, but the decision by countries including Britain and the US to order booster doses has been met with criticism by campaigners, who have also targeted vaccine prices.

The People’s Vaccine campaign group — whose members include Oxfam — claimed that Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna were charging governments as much as $41 billion above the cost of production. The campaigners suggested that they had also sold more than 90 per cent of their vaccine supplies so far to rich countries. They want vaccine makers to transfer their technology and know-how to producers in developing countries to boost global supply.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said that doses would be “much better deployed for people who will die over the next six months” around the world — rather than in a UK booster programme. He said that the prospect of “no doses in many parts of the world and three doses here” represented a moral failure.

His views were echoed by Clive Dix, former chairman of the UK Vaccines Taskforce, which is responsible for striking deals with manufacturers. Dix suggested that only the most vulnerable should be given booster jabs. “We aren’t anywhere near saturating the world yet, and we’ve probably got 300 million doses on order that need to go elsewhere,” he said.

Despite the plans of vaccine developers, the likelihood of vast price increases has led to scepticism among some industry watchers. Geoff Meacham at Bank of America pointed to the annual flu jab, which costs about £5 in the UK. “You can’t have it both ways,” he said. “You can’t say we need annual boosters but say we also want to charge $10, $15, $20.”

Meacham is particularly focused on Moderna, publishing a note last week saying that its valuation was “unjustifiable on a fundamental basis”. The company’s Covid vaccine was pushed through trials far quicker than it would have been in normal times; after Covid, it isn’t expected to launch new treatments until 2024.

Moderna’s shares fell more than 20 per cent after Meacham’s note, wiping more than $20 billion off the company’s value — now about $160 billion. Its shares ended the week at $389.75, still way above Meacham’s price target of $115.

Afeyan said he did not engage in “speculating” on the value of Moderna. “What we’re busy doing is to invent yet new science, create new products and apply them to the world’s most serious health challenges,” he said.

For Afeyan, approval of the vaccine was a moment of “great relief”. On a personal note, though, its launch was tinged with sadness: Afeyan’s father-in-law died of Covid shortly before it was approved.

“The notion that only four months later, we would have a vaccine ... was a super bittersweet moment,” he said.

At the sharp end

Albert Bourla, chief executive of Pfizer, is one of the leading figures in the fight against Covid. Bourla, 59, was paid $21 million (£15.2 million) last year and drew attention in November after selling $5.6 million of shares on the same day the drugmaker announced that its Covid vaccine was more than 90 per cent effective in protecting people from transmission of the virus.

As chief executive of Boston-based biotech Moderna, Stéphane Bancel has enjoyed a lucrative role during the pandemic. The Frenchman, 49, sold $98 million of shares last year and has continued to sell, yet he still owns 1.5 per cent of the company. If unexercised share options are included this rises to 8 per cent. He is worth an estimated $4.3 billion, according to Forbes.

As the founder of the venture capitalist behind Moderna, Noubar Afeyan has more skin in the vaccine game than most. The Lebanese-born entrepreneur, 59, has led Flagship Pioneering for the past 21 years. Since then, Flagship has created and backed more than 100 companies. Moderna is valued at $158.7 billion and Afeyan has a net worth of $1.9 billion, according to Forbes.

Astra Zeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot, 62, has been dragged through the courts in Europe over delays in the delivery of his firm’s Covid vaccine — despite promising not to profit during the pandemic. This month Soriot, who was paid £15.4 million last year, said Astra would “at some point” move to an affordable price but would supply poorer nations at no profit in perpetuity.

Dr Ugur Sahin and his wife Dr Özlem Türeci began work on a vaccine in January last year after Sahin read an article in the medical journal The Lancet. Their company, BioNTech, based in Germany, teamed up with Pfizer to develop the jab. Its success has propelled BioNTech to a $90.5 billion valuation. Sahin, 55, chief executive, has an estimated net worth of $14.8 billion, according to Forbes.