The vaccine news is encouraging — but it shouldn’t absolve big pharma of all its sins

Bonny Brooks
·4-min read
<p>Pharmaceutical companies have faced lawsuits in the past, but the UK government has granted Pfizer indemnity against any that arise from a Covid vaccine</p>

Pharmaceutical companies have faced lawsuits in the past, but the UK government has granted Pfizer indemnity against any that arise from a Covid vaccine

This week’s news that the UK has approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is reverberating around the world. Amid this, pressure continues to mount on the FDA to make a speedy call for Americans.

For millions, the UK’s rubber-stamp is a light at the end of a dark tunnel. The countless healthcare workers approaching burnout, their faces dented from shift upon shift wearing PPE. The many trapped in care homes for months, unable to see loved ones. The workers laid off and the business owners that have seen their babies go under. The uncounted people suffering post-viral fatigue. All those watching their mental health wither during lockdowns and social distancing. Every person panicked as to how they will pay their rent. To say nothing of the families grieving loved ones.

The vaccine is a boon for so many – but not all. Microchips, psychological experiments; all the conspiracies are proliferating. Log on to your socials today and you might see the name of a long-since discontinued drug next to pictures of tiny-armed children. Never mind the fact that thalidomide was never a vaccine, was discontinued for pregnant women in 1961 and that, in the sixty years since that nightmare, clinical trials and medicine have – imagine that – progressed. Never mind the fact that the proliferation of vaccines has played a key role in the wealth and comfort the West enjoys, and that an estimated 1.5 million people die every year globally from vaccine-preventable diseases. Vaccines are increasingly a battleground in the culture wars, and misinformation abounds.

On this battleground however, opposite the “Big Pharma Baddy” position is “Big Pharma Daddy”. Here, any criticism of the drug giants – especially now as they ride to the rescue – marks someone out as a crank.

But you don’t have to be an anti-vaxxer to have issues with the pharmaceutical industry. There are many, many justifiable complaints that have nothing to do with bogus inoculation-autism studies.

In the last couple of weeks alone, we’ve seen Purdue Pharma plead guilty to criminal charges in connection with their opioid drug oxycontin. Purdue admitted to conspiring to defraud US officials and offering illegal kickbacks to doctors and an electronic healthcare records vendor. All to keep the prescriptions churning, while Americans died and poor communities withered under the opioid epidemic. Meanwhile, most of the billions of dollars Purdue owes in penalties will remain unpaid.

And the much-lauded Covid vaccine developer, Pfizer? It was barely a decade ago in 2009 that Pfizer and its subsidiary Pharmacia & Upjohn agreed to pay $2.3 billion in a criminal fraud settlement with the US Department of Justice for the illegal promotion of its drug Bextra, that was discontinued in 2005 due to safety concerns. At the time, this was the biggest healthcare fraud settlement in the DOJ’s history, because Pfizer, as the DOJ noted, “promoted the sale of Bextra for several uses and dosages that the FDA specifically declined to approve due to safety concerns.” This is from the US Department of Justice; not

The pharmaceutical industry lobbies aggressively, targeting politicians and initiatives concerned with healthcare regulation, including the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, a recent peer-reviewed study published by JAMA Internal Medicine, which analyzed publicly available information on US campaign donations and lobbying from pharma and the health product industry over the last twenty years, found it to be the biggest total spender at the federal level.

Americans spend more on prescription drugs than anyone else in the world. Even before Covid and all its associated layoffs, nearly one in four Americans struggled to buy their medication. This, despite the fact that the taxpayer invests fathomless sums in early research.

We all know the stories of sick people forced to ration their insulin; and from EpiPens to drugs for HIV, Americans have suffered price hikes to medications they depend upon. When this happens, insurance companies and hospitals often just won’t pay for them.

I could go on, but there is barely enough time in the world to document the suffering caused by the US’s fragmented and exploitative healthcare system.

Over the last two decades, crucial headway has been made by campaigners, activists (and some politicians) to illuminate these injustices. But there are many miles to go and Big Pharma’s lobbying heft is a boulder in the road.

“All hail Big Pharma! A pox on the house of the cranks who criticize it!” is a mood among many public figures right now. But it is possible – essential, even – to hail the vaccine without granting a Hail Mary for pharma’s grossest sins.

Americans desperately need a better healthcare system. To get it, they have to take special interests to task – insurance companies and yes, our great savior Big Pharma. This becomes impossible if, in a spasm of gratitude, we make industry criticism illegitimate.

Covid kills. So does unaffordable healthcare.