It’s about as near as science gets to a miracle: A coronavirus vaccine has arrived — and the main reason is that mRNA vaccines, a previously untested technology, appears to work better than almost anyone had hoped.
As recently as this summer, many analysts were pushing their predictions for a vaccine into the fall of 2021, in line with the timeline of traditional treatments. If these new vaccines perform as well in the wild as they have in clinical trials, the world will remember it as a victory perhaps greater than Salk and Sabin against polio. If this new type of vaccine also goes on to work against other viruses, it will mark an epochal advance in vaccinology, closer to the discoveries of Pasteur and Jenner.
But a strange thing has happened in our celebration of this scientific triumph. While we remember those historic advances as the work of individual scientists or laboratories, the vaccines against Covid-19 are being written instead as a victory for pharmaceutical companies.
The rule in press coverage seems to be that the biggest brand involved gets top credit. And so, every day now there are stories about the Pfizer vaccine (a collaboration between Pfizer and the German biotech company BioNTech); the Moderna vaccine (a partnership between the National Institutes of Health and Moderna); and the AstraZeneca vaccine (a front-running non-mRNA candidate, in fact created by scientists at the University of Oxford and developed and distributed by AstraZeneca).
It’s an incredible public relations coup for an industry desperate to rescue its image. Just last month, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty and has agreed to penalties of more than $8 billion after being prosecuted for its role in America’s horrific opioid crisis. Pfizer set an earlier record for a drug industry fraud settlement in 2009 at $2.3 billion, in a case over its fraudulent marketing of a painkiller, an antipsychotic and other drugs for conditions for which it hadn’t received approval.
The turpitude of the pharmaceutical industry is so commonplace that it has become part of the cultural wallpaper. The screenwriters of the 1993 movie “The Fugitive” knew they could find a perfectly plausible villain to menace Harrison Ford in a faceless drug company out to cover up its malfeasance. (The film was a hit.) In John le Carré’s 2001 novel “The Constant Gardner,” a British diplomat uncovering a pharma giant testing dangerous drugs on poor Africans is similarly easily to swallow: Its plotline echoes a real case involving Pfizer in Nigeria. (The company has denied any wrongdoing and settled out of court the suit brought by the families of children who died during the testing.)
And yet, since the pharmaceutical industry stepped in with the vaccines, generations worth of ill will appears to be melting away. Last year, Gallup polling had the pharmaceutical industry ranked the most disliked in America, below both big oil and big government. By this September — even before the vaccines arrived — the industry’s approval rating was already improving.
This isn’t lost on the industry itself. A financial analyst recently said that Pfizer’s involvement in the coronavirus pandemic was about “as much public relations as it is a financial return.” In April, the chief executive of Eli Lilly, the company that put out an antibody therapy for Covid-19, told investors that the pandemic offered “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset the reputation of the industry.”
We’ve all been hoping for a vaccine for so long, the moment the medicine is finally being delivered, it seems almost perverse to question the name on the vial. But the industry isn’t our savior. Each of these vaccine candidates is a complex scientific project with many collaborators — and a substantial level of state support. Giving the industry not just plaudits, but control over the vaccines themselves would be a mistake.