Vaccine Billionaires Show Why Medicine Can’t Be Left to the Market

Since the start of the pandemic, nine new billionaires have been minted from vaccines funded in large part by public money – meanwhile, citizens of poorer countries are still waiting for their first dose.

Credit: Mohammad Shahhosseini / Unsplash

Monopoly medicine has allowed for the normalisation of a neoliberal approach in an arena it should never have penetrated: global health. As a result of pandemic profits, a wave of new billionaires has emerged – in stark contrast with the destitution faced elsewhere, and with the disturbing persisting inequality to access which is quickly becoming a vaccine apartheid.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, nine new people have become billionaires off vaccine fortunes, with a combined net wealth of $19.3 billion (£13.6 billion). According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, between them, their net worth is enough to fully vaccinate all people in low-income countries 1.3 times over. The Alliance, comprised of nine NGOs including Amnesty International, Oxfam, and UNAIDS, has led campaigns against this wealth proliferation following their analysis of Forbes Rich List data, which spotlighted the amassed wealth of a few people in spite of the billions in public money which funded the production of these vaccines.

These are the vaccine billionaires.

1. Stéphane Bancel (worth $4.3 billion)

Bancel, a French citizen, became CEO of Moderna in 2011 after leaving his previous job as CEO of French diagnostics firm BioMérieux. He owns about 6% of Moderna, down from about 9% when he first became a billionaire in March 2020 after selling more than a million shares as the firm’s stock surged by more than 550%. According to regulatory filings, he has also cashed out of nearly $30 million in stock this year.

2. Uğur Şahin (worth $4 billion)

Uğur Şahin is CEO and cofounder of German biotech firm BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer to produce the first Covid-19 vaccine approved in the US. Şahin and his wife Özlem Türeci cofounded BioNTech in 2008, backed by German billionaire brothers Thomas and Andreas Struengmann; he owns about 17% of BioNTech, which went public on the Nasdaq in October 2019. Şahin was born in Turkey and grew up in Germany where he trained as an oncologist. In 2001 he cofounded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, which was bought by Astellas Pharma, a major pharmaceutical company based in Tokyo, in 2016 for $460 million.

3. Timothy Springer (worth $2.2 billion)

An immunologist and professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard University, Springer was a founding investor in Moderna in 2010, putting $5 million into the fledgling company. Over a decade later, his 3.5% stake is now worth roughly $1.6 billion. Springer is an active investor in biotech, with smaller holdings in publicly-traded firms Selecta Biosciences, Scholar Rock, and Morphic Therapeutic, which have ‘humble beginnings’ from his research with postdoctoral students. In 1993, he founded biotech firm LeukoSite and took it public in 1998; the next year, he sold it to Millennium Therapeutics, which in turn is now owned by Takeda, a Japanese pharmaceutical multinational, for $635 million.

4. Noubar Afeyan (worth $1.9 billion)

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1962 to Armenian parents, Noubar Afeyan and his family fled the Lebanese Civil War to move to Montreal in 1975. Afeyan is the founder and CEO of life sciences venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering, whose founded companies are worth more than $30 billion. He increased his fortune as the chairman of Moderna, and he also owns shares in more than a dozen publicly traded biotech companies in the US.

5. Juan Lopez-Belmonte (worth $1.8 billion)

Juan Lopez-Belmonte Lopez is chairman of the board of Laboratorios Farmaceuticos Rovi (known just as Rovi), a Madrid-based biotechnology firm. His son, Juan Lopez-Belmonte Encina, is CEO; two other sons serve as vice presidents. Together, the family owns more than 60% of the company. In July 2020 he proliferated his millions when he agreed to Rovi and Moderna’s collaboration on manufacturing and packaging the latter company’s Covid-19 vaccine candidate.

6. Robert Langer (worth $1.6 billion)

Robert Langer is a professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was a founding investor in Moderna—located just across the street from his office in Cambridge—in 2010, and has never sold a share; his 3% stake is now worth about $1.5 billion. He owns smaller holdings in publicly-traded biotech start-ups SQZ Biotechnologies and Frequency Therapeutics, both founded by postdoctoral students from his lab, and he holds more than 1,400 patents which have been licensed more than 400 times to pharmaceutical and medical companies.

7. Zhu Tao (worth $1.3 billion)

Zhu Tao graduated from University of Pittsburgh with a PhD in chemical engineering in 2003, after which he conducted postdoctoral research at Carnegie Mellon University, focusing his interests on vaccine research. Zhu is the co-founder and chief scientific officer of CanSino Biologics since 2009, a supplier of vaccine products including the Convidecia single-dose Covid-19 vaccine, which has been approved for use in some Asian, European, and Latin American countries.

8. Qiu Dongxu (worth $1.2 billion)

Qiu Dongxu is also a co-founder and senior vice president of CanSino Biologics. A pharmacist by trade, he found his fortune through the biotechnology industry. In the past four years, he has helped CanSino raise $20 million and directed the technology transfer of two vaccine products. He previously spent nine years in senior management positions with Biomira, AltaRex, and Arius Research.

9. Mao Huinhoa (worth $1 billion)

Mao Huinhoa is also co-founder and senior vice-president at CanSino Biologics.

In addition to this list, the combined wealth of eight existing billionaires—who have extensive portfolios in the Covid-19 pharmaceutical companies—increased by $32.2 billion, according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

The people listed here are the ones conservatives and liberals alike like to use to justify the existence of billionaires. They have contributed to the discovery and development of life-saving technology. Some of them came from humble beginnings. They are evidence of meritocracy in action; this is the innovation capitalism breeds.

That much might be true were the world already free of Covid. But these success stories depend entirely on scarcity: patents limiting the output of vaccines is what makes pharma corporations profitable. If everyone had access to vaccine technology for free, like they should, those billions would quickly disappear. Innovation is of course at play, but so is hoarding – to the detriment of millions.

The World Health Organisation states that, at time of writing, 87% of vaccine doses have gone to high- or upper-middle-income countries. Low-income countries have received just 0.3%. There is a risk that the recent commitment by G7 leaders to get one billion Covid-19 vaccine doses to poorer countries may come too late: the plan lacks ambition, and shows that leaders of wealthy governments value the interests of pharmaceutical companies over the health of people worldwide.

The failure to share the vaccine intellectual property has completely undermined global recovery efforts in tackling the worst public health crisis in a century. We continue to watch the virus mutate further, which could, in the worst case scenario, lead to it becoming resistant to new vaccines. Only time will tell.

What we do know for certain is that these vaccines were funded by public money, and should be first and foremost a global public good – not a private profit opportunity.