The pricing for the United States was in line with the cost of seasonal flu vaccines and much less expensive than vaccines for conditions like shingles, which can run into several hundred dollars.
“That price point does not seem offensive, even if you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about prescription drugs,” said Stacie Dusetzina, an associate professor of health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “Just thinking about any prescription you’d fill, you’d be hard-pressed to find pretty much anything for $20.”
But the fact that Pfizer appears to have earned something like $900 million in pretax profits from its vaccine — coupled with its comparatively small sales to poor countries — suggests that profits have trumped other considerations. That could undercut the company’s embrace of loftier principles.
“At Pfizer, we believe that every person deserves to be seen, heard and cared for,” the chief executive, Albert Bourla, said in January as the company announced it would join Covax. “We share the mission of Covax and are proud to work together so that developing countries have the same access as the rest of the world.”
But the company seems to have prioritized higher-priced sales.
“Despite all the talk about Covax, they have been far more interested in bilateral deals, because that’s where they make their money,” said Richard Kozul-Wright, director of the division on globalization and development strategies at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Geneva. “It’s one of the great public relations triumphs of recent corporate history.”
Multiple factors explain the inequitable nature of Pfizer’s vaccine distribution.
The shot, which must be stored and transported at very low temperatures, is less practical for hard-to-reach parts of the world than other shots, like those from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, that can simply be refrigerated. Some poor countries were initially not hit hard by the virus, and so their governments had less urgency to place orders for the Pfizer vaccine, to the extent that they could afford to pay for the shots.
“Not everyone was interested in the vaccine or prepared to take steps; thus, conversations continue, including working with Covax beyond their initial order of 40 million doses,” said Ms. Castillo, the Pfizer spokeswoman.