Don’t Mix For-Profit Companies and Public Health Emergencies

Last month, a vaccine production lab run by Emergent BioSolutions in Baltimore botched millions of doses of vaccines due to cross contamination between the Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines that were being produced in the same facility. This wasn’t the first time that Emergent BioSolutions has botched vaccines; from October 2020 through January 2021, they had to discard 10-15 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

This wasn’t exactly a surprise either. An audit of Emergent by AstraZeneca had revealed a high probability of cross contamination. The facility had a track record of failing to train employees, low staffing, cracked vials, mold in the facility and other contaminations. Former company officials have said that the Emergent top management had defied federal standards; one top Emergent supervisor even said they could only “make drugs or fix problems… I don’t have time to do both.”

But Emergent BioSolutions has been offered millions in government contracts and could fix the problems and make drugs in a safe manner. That would cut into their profitability, which, as the C.E.O. said himself in 2020, has been “off-the-chart successful.” Emergent’s $1.5 billion revenue in 2020 was mostly from government contracts for national stockpiles of vaccines. The firm was granted $628 million dollars from the government for responding to the coronavirus even though they failed to meet criteria for being surge-ready.

Emergent has made record profits. It is a private company that can decide how to invest the grants and contracts that it receives. As a for-profit company, it will use government funds to make profits for itself and its shareholders. And these funds come, of course, from taxpayers, mostly working people. This should be deeply disturbing to all of us, because vaccine distribution and production is a fundamental part of our ability to take care of our public health, and right now to end the COVID pandemic. It is certainly profitable for Emergent BioSolutions to keep staffing low and not invest the capital it would take to have safe and contained vaccine production labs. However, it’s a danger to the rest of us. We won’t have a reliable public health system so long as the industries that provide it are owned and controlled by capitalists.