Big Pharma…Big Profits…Big Reckoning

So, what do we think of Big Pharma now?

It’s hard to sustain a life-long antipathy toward Big Pharma when it has just bestowed a medical miracle at warped speed, and in time to save the lives of millions.

With the era of Covid, the industry has won a public relations coup. A recent Harris poll showed that 40 per cent of those surveyed were more favorably inclined to drug companies than before the pandemic. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmaceutical companies ranked last a Gallup poll measuring the favourability of key industries.

The boost in public confidence and esteem couldn’t have come at a better time for an industry so sullied by a track record of dishonesty and profiteering. Big Pharma has been plagued with one reputation-gouging controversy after another including high drug costs, spending on lobbyists (about $92 million in the first quarter of 2021, more than any other industry) and public health disasters linked to Big Pharma products. Drug companies have gleefully tallied profits from the sale of highly addictive opioids that they knew were harmful. Johnson & Johnson is currently using a controversial bankruptcy move to avoid paying 38,000 lawsuit claims linked to talc baby powder laced with asbestos and linked to uterine cancers.

Perfectly positioned

But these days life is good for Big Pharma. People like and trust the industry more and their profits have never been higher.

When Covid hit, pharmaceutical companies were perfectly positioned to strike a sweet deal with government funders. Vaccines haven’t of late been the industry’s go-to business, given the low profit margins associated with mainly single-use medicines. Enticing companies back into the business of researching, testing, and producing vaccines has come at a price.

In a 2021 report Pharmaceutical Companies Reaping Immoral profits, Oxfam Canada cites research by the People’s Vaccine Alliance: “Moderna, BioNTech, and Pfizer are reaping astronomical and unconscionable profits due to their monopolies of mRNA COVID vaccines — upwards of 69 per cent profit margins in the case of Moderna and BioNTech — while Moderna and Pfizer are also paying little in taxes.”

One estimate projects that global drug spending will be $157 billion by 2025.


Since Woodward-Bernstein days, investigative journalists as well as criminal investigators, have ascribed to the follow-the-money maxim for uncovering wrongdoing. The theory holds that a money trail will unfailingly lead to the beneficiaries of criminal activity. But the objective in this case is not about uncovering the sources of wealth.

The extent of the profits being heaped on Big Pharma during the pandemic are pretty much known, and it’s no secret where they got the money. They got it from governments that were desperate for a solution as hospitals around the world filled up with citizens sick and dying from COVID.

This is not an anti- science, anti-vax rant. This is about understanding how an industry went about exploiting a human health tragedy that brought much of the world to its knees. The unfolding crisis created uncommonly hospitable conditions for maximizing profit. Speed was a key imperative. Governments were willing to modify normal safeguards to accelerate the discovery process. The public purse was low hanging fruit, as governments fiercely competed with one another for limited supplies of vaccine. But none of that mattered. All of us, including industry watchdogs and government critics, had our eye on the ball, singularly focused on getting that jab that would keep us alive.

Disaster patriarchy

We found ourselves in a monumental predicament, one arising from what Canadian author Naomi Klein calls disaster capitalism “when private industries spring up to directly profit from large-scale crises” using measures they wouldn’t otherwise get away with.

‘Disaster capitalism’ and ‘disaster patriarchy’ are new terms used to explain an age-old pattern of suddenly rolling back women’s rights during hard economic times.  Disaster patriarchy comes into play when “men exploit a crisis to reassert control and dominance, and rapidly erase women’s hard-earned rights”.

Patriarchy has taken full advantage of the Covid pandemic to not only reclaim power from women but from all of us who are trying to protect ourselves and our loved one and who value public health over profits.

For now, we need to all get fully vaccinated and practice safety protocols. But we will soon also need a full accounting of how our governments acted in the face of the pandemic crisis.

As noted in a Toronto Star column this week, “Canadians still haven’t been able to find out how much is being paid for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.” We have a right to know how much our Covid-response cost us and a lot more, including why we aren’t doing more as part of the global effort to vaccinate the world.


Photo courtesy of Flickr/Creative Commons