In July 2020, I volunteered to be in Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine trial. If I knew then what I know now about the company’s quest for profits, I wouldn’t have done that.
As one of about 30,000 “human guinea pigs,” I permitted Moderna to test its experimental vaccine on me to see if it would provide protection from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. It wasn’t clear if the vaccine would work, but it was clear the world needed a solution to this pandemic nightmare that has now claimed nearly 5.5 million lives in just two years.
As a participant in the double-blind trial, I didn’t know if I was in the control group, which received shots of saline, or in the experimental group, which received shots of the experimental vaccine. It was only six months after starting the trial that I learned I was among those who received saline.
Letting a company that had never brought a vaccine to market use my body as a test subject was scary, painful, and exhausting. Participating in the trial entailed seven visits to a hospital, 24 phone calls, dozens of diary entries, repeated batteries of questions about my private life, five blood draws, and numerous nasopharyngeal swabs — the painful brain-tickling ones.
I volunteered for the trial because I believed that helping Moderna develop a vaccine to help get the world out of the pandemic was worth it. Though the risks in agreeing to allow an experimental vaccine to be put into my body were obvious, the potential benefits seemed much more alluring. As a father, I was concerned about the world my two kids — ages 1 and 5 — were inheriting.
When the trial ended and I learned of the vaccine’s success, I was ecstatic that I had played a small role in furthering science that could help save lives. I even agreed to enroll in another trial for Moderna’s booster that specifically targeted the Delta variant. I felt then that being a test subject was a valuable way to contribute to public health during the Covid-19 pandemic.
That initial feeling has receded in recent months as I have come to understand that the noble enterprise of science-making I had imagined I was a part of is actually, first and foremost, an exercise in ruthless corporate profit-making.
Instead of going all out to end the pandemic as quickly as possible, Moderna is helping prolong it by not making its mRNA technology available to the U.S. government or other manufacturers so global production can be scaled up quickly — and thereby maximizing its profits.
Moderna’s own projections suggest the company will make between $15 billion and $18 billion in sales in 2021 alone. And with the potential to apply the mRNA approach to vaccines for other diseases beyond this coronavirus, the profits that Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech (producers of another mRNA vaccine) stand to make in the coming decades are boundless. By some estimates, these vaccine makers are already making $65,000 every minute.
The irony is that this science should not have been a selfish exercise: The U.S. government provided roughly $2.5 billion to Moderna for development and purchase of vaccines. That investment should have ensured that humanity’s future is not decided by companies that have already made billions.
Without decisive action to make mRNA technology more widely available, the world will increasingly face the rise of Omicron and likely other even more dangerous and ominous new variants in the months and years ahead. This status quo is in no one’s best interest, except of course the companies that will profit when new variants arise, threatening repeated waves of death and infection. It’s certainly not in the best interest of Americans, who would benefit from a global equitable vaccine solution. A more equitable vaccine solution, the WHO estimates, would enable the U.S. and nine other industrialized nations to accrue between $153 billion and $466 billion in economic benefits.
While the process of science and the products it yields are noble, science for outrageous profit that costs people their lives is not noble. That is why I can no longer in good conscience be part of Moderna’s trials, and I urge other Moderna trial participants to resign as well. We allowed Moderna to test its experimental vaccine and booster on us in order to help end this pandemic, not to make more pharma billionaires.
Jeremy Menchik is an associate professor of international relations and religion at Boston University.
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