THE VACCINE MAKERS’ vague promises around affordability, while retaining a monopoly control of vaccine technology financed by public entities, have unsettled public health watchdogs.

Achal Prabhala — coordinator for the AccessIBSA project, which campaigns for access to medicines — notes that the U.S. government alone, through Operation Warp Speed, has pumped $18 billion into vaccine makers, in addition to advance payments for vaccines, ensuring that the pharmaceutical industry would face no financial risk.

“You know, Americans are amazed that they’re getting vaccines for free,” said Prabhala. “And of course they’re not because they’ve already paid for them once and now they’re amazed that they’re not paying for them twice.”

The pharmaceutical industry has faced declining public approval over the last decade. But the pandemic has presented a golden opportunity, noted Prabhala.

“Even though companies like Pfizer, which has not made the vaccine available to 85 percent of the world’s population, are enjoying immense popularity in the U.S. and Europe because of the fact that they got the vaccines done fast, and they seem to work well. That’s an unusually good position for pharma, they’re not used to being thought of as saviors,” he added.

But the companies have held out on drastic or even slight price increases on the vaccines, Prabhala continued, because they are managing the potential for reputational risk. “It’s pretty interesting that they are now waiting for the opportune time to raise prices once enough people have been vaccinated,” he added.