Pfizer vs the Feds; a Parable for Our Times

There’s a very interesting commentary on the Bulwark blog, about Pfizer and its new vaccine. Not about the medical aspects but the financial side: Pfizer completely steered clear of the administration’s “Operation Warp Speed,” with all its hoopla and federal money, paying for all the experimentation and trials solely with its own funds.

Blogger Brent Orrell wondered

why Pfizer opted to front its own costs when the federal spigot was open, and why it raced to distance itself from Operation Warp Speed once the clinical trial findings were released. For answers to those questions, we have to review the long, sad tale of the Trump administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis over the past nine months.

You know the outline of what’s next, but bear with us:

Except for brief interludes, President Trump more or less fumbled pandemic policy and communications from the get-go. In service of his re-election campaign, he sought to downplay the seriousness of the threat. He has encouraged resistance to public health measures like masking and business lockdowns, leading to huge, rotating disease spikes first in the South and more recently in the Midwest.

His overheated rhetoric against social distancing and restrictions on business (“Liberate Michigan!”) culminated in FBI-thwarted plots to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia. Finally, his resolute refusal to adhere to, or allow those around him to adhere to, basic disease mitigation practices resulted in a mini-epidemic for the first family and dozens of members of his administration. Back in August, even Mitch McConnell started avoiding a White House that looked every day more like a scene from The Hot Zone.

So other than that, fine? No, Orrell has more:

Then there’s the way Trump has handled therapeutics and vaccines themselves. He has upsold unproven and quack remedies—everything from hydroxychloroquine to light to disinfectant—as health advisers looked on with hostage-video expressions on their faces.

He and Alex Azar, his secretary of health and human services, signaled repeatedly that they wanted to seize control of the agencies and protocols that guide the development and approval of vaccines and therapeutics. Trump openly misled the public about when a vaccine was likely to be available, contending that the country was “rounding the corner” on the disease even though an effective and broadly available vaccine was, and remains, months away, and infections and hospitalizations are exploding across the country.

In short, he has treated every aspect of COVID-19 the way he treats everything else, as subject to his patented “truthful hyperbole”—minus the truth. Is it really any wonder that Pfizer avoided the embrace of Operation Warp Speed and did everything it could to distance itself when it came time to persuade a wary public to accept its product as effective and safe? It would be a disservice to the public and business malpractice to do otherwise.

Orrell works for the American Enterprise Institute, so he can’t help closing with a brief homily:

In a time when capitalism is under attack from the left and the right, this highly promising vaccine is a reminder of what profit-driven markets are capable of. Pfizer chose to go it alone and the company’s reasoning is worth consideration.

In an interview, the CEO of Pfizer emphasized that he wanted to liberate his scientists from bureaucracy, that he didn’t want to deal with the strings that money would come with, and that he wanted to keep Pfizer out of politics.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, making money.

And, let us note, he also wanted to make a bundle. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla sold 132,000 personal shares of the company which were suddenly worth $41.94 each when the news broke, for the nifty sum of $5,536,080. (All authorized and legal, by the way.)

Orrell: In (Bourla’s) approach we glean two insights: the importance of forward-thinking corporate leadership and the critical difference between government as a customer and government as an investor.

Well, I can’t refuse to give Pfizer its capitalist props (assuming, of course, that its vaccine turns out to be as good as advertised, which we don’t really know yet). And that $5.5 mil large for his afternoon’s exertion is likely just a drop in the bucket of the boodle that’s to come if the vaccine proves out.

But being a leftie liberal, I have to cavil a bit: Sure, if Pfizer’s really got the goods, it shows capitalism in a good, even excellent light.

On the other hand, it is not out of place to mention that this case will also show the value of competence and probity in management. And that the cemeteries of business history are littered with the bleaching bones of many a CEO who was crooked and incompetent, surrounded by the ruins of their once giant companies.

So before we leave Pfizer to its (likely) earned glory and gold mine, here’s a quick thought experiment: suppose the federal response to the pandemic had been in the hands of an administration which was hounds’ tooth honest, and competent enough to rescue major industries which corporate greedheads had brought to collapse? Even then, one can be sure that Big Pharma would have made tons of money. But if government had been on the ball, there could also have been a couple hundred thousand more Americans still alive to share in their success.

Is that just softheaded liberal daydreaming? Well, some may remember that just such an administration actually DID occupy the White House, immediately before the one that Bourla & Pfizer so shrewdly avoided. (That bunch saved the economy, resuscitated the auto industry, and stomped on Ebola, among other things. And in its eight years altogether, not one — not ONE–high federal official among them was indicted for criminal misconduct.)

With that memory in view, some of us — many, in fact — are looking forward to what should be the recovery of such standards when the next, or really the first, serious, competent federal campaign to overcome the continuing pandemic gets underway. If the Feds and the Pharms actually work together, maybe we’ll really get somewhere.

3 thoughts on “Pfizer vs the Feds; a Parable for Our Times”

  1. If Pfizer CEO thought his company’s vaccine would be first to market and then retain a big share for a long time, why would he sell his shares? Wouldn’t he have bought more shares so as to profit as the stock prices go up?

    Maybe he understands that the extreme cold (-80 degrees) needed to keep the vaccine useful will make this vaccine (which required 2 injections month(s)? apart, have a short useful life?

    Like the “dry ice” that will be used to cool his hot vaccine.


  2. Naa, your right, your right. That was just a bunch of puddin headed day dreaming.
    Better off steering away from controversial politics my brother. It tends to muddy the waters when reading your opines about the more important things, i.e. Gods Kingdom.

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