Pluralistic: The public paid for "Moderna's" vaccine, and now we're going to pay again (and again and again); How Facebook's Real Names policy helps Cambodia's thin-skinned dictator terrorize dissenters (25 Jan 2023)

Originally published at: Pluralistic: The public paid for “Moderna’s” vaccine, and now we’re going to pay again (and again and again); How Facebook’s Real Names policy helps Cambodia’s thin-skinned dictator terrorize dissenters (25 Jan 2023) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow


Today's links



Moderna headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. On the left side of the entry, a Jacobin with a guillotine gets ready to decapitate an aristocrat. On the right side of the frame, a cigar-chomping, top-hat wearing ogrish figure makes ready to yank a gilded dollar-sign lever while holding an MRNA molecule disdainfully aloft.

The public paid for "Moderna's" vaccine, and now we're going to pay again (and again and again) (permalink)

Moderna is quadrupling the cost of covid vaccines, from $26/dose to $110-130. Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel calls the price hike "consistent with the value" of the mRNA vaccines. Moderna's manufacturing costs are $2.85/dose, for a 4,460% markup on every dose:

https://arstechnica.com/science/2023/01/moderna-may-match-pfizers-400-price-hike-on-covid-vaccines-report-says/

Now, obviously the manufacturing costs are only part of the cost of making a vaccine: there's also all the high-risk capital that goes into doing the basic research. Whenever a pharma company like Moderna hikes its prices, we're reminded that the rewards are commensurate with these risks.

But the story of the Moderna vaccine isn't one of a company taking huge gambles with shareholder dollars. It's the story of the US government giving billions and billions of dollars to a private firm, which will now charge the US government – and the American people – a 4,460% markup on the resulting medicine.

Writing for The American Prospect, Lily Meyersohn reminds us of the Moderna vaccine's origin story: the NIH spent $1.4B developing the underlying technology and then the US government bought $8b worth of vaccines at $16/dose, giving Moderna a guaranteed 460% margin on each jab:

https://prospect.org/health/2023-01-23-moderna-covid-vaccine-price-hike-bernie-sanders/

Moderna clearly does not feel that the billions it received in public funds came with any obligation to serve the public interest. The company falsified its patent applications, omitting the NIH scientists who co-developed the vaccine, claiming sole ownership:

https://blog.petrieflom.law.harvard.edu/2022/01/06/nih-moderna-mrna-covid-vaccine-patent/

As Meyersohn writes, this omission allows Moderna to block the NIH from licensing the vaccine to foreign manufacturers – including vaccine manufacturers in the global south, home to many powerhouse producers of vaccines:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/08/24/waivers-for-me-not-for-thee/#vaccine-apartheid

Moderna claims to have capitulated to the NIH on the patent question, but it's a lie – even as they were publicly announcing they would drop their bid to exclude NIH scientists from their patent application, they quietly filed for a continuance that would let them renew their exclusive claim later, when the heat has died down:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/17/us/moderna-patent-nih.html

This maneuver, combined with Astrazeneca reneging on its promise to open its vaccine – a move engineered by Bill Gates – has deprived billions of the world's poorest people of access to vaccines. Many of these people were previously blocked from accessing AIDS drugs when the Gates Foundation teamed up to block WTO vaccine waivers:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/04/13/public-interest-pharma/#gates-foundation

These immunucompromised, unvaccinated people are at increased risk of contracting covid, and when they do, they are sick for longer, creating more opportunities for viral mutation and new, more virulent variants.

That was where we stood before Moderna announced its 400% vaccine price-hike. Now, millions of Americans will also be blocked from accessing vaccines, opening the door for rampant, repeated infections, more mutations, and more variants. As Alex Lawson of Social Security Works told Meyersohn, at that price, the US will not be able to achieve herd immunity.

What will Moderna do with the billions it reaps through price-gouging? It won't be research. To date, the company has spent >20% of its covid windfall profits on stock buybacks and dividends, manipulating its stock price, with more to come:

https://www.levernews.com/how-big-pharma-actually-spends-its-massive-profits/

It's not an outlier. Big Pharma is a machine for commercializing publicly funded research and then laundering the profits with financial engineering. The largest pharma companies each spend more on stock buybacks than research:

https://www.levernews.com/how-big-pharma-actually-spends-its-massive-profits/

Moderna didn't have a single successful product for its first decade of operation: it is only a going concern because it got billions in free public research and billions more in public commitments to buy its products at a huge markup.

It wasn't always this way. Until the 1990s, pharma companies that commercialized public research were bound to license terms that required "reasonable pricing." NIH inventions were subject to non-exclusive licensing terms, ensuring a competitive market.

The NIH could act to stem Moderna's profiteering. Moderna's vaccine (like virtually all mRNA vaccines) uses NIH patent 10,960,070 – though Moderna doesn't license the '070 patent. The NIH could use the threat of a patent infringement suit to force Moderna to put pandemic resilience and access to vaccines over financial engineering and executive bonuses.

When it comes to patent enforcement to protect the public interest, the USG has a long history of channeling King Log, letting companies price-gouge with products built on public research.

https://media.nature.com/original/magazine-assets/d41586-021-03535-x/d41586-021-03535-x.pdf

The states are stepping in where the feds have failed to act, spinning up their own pharma production capacity to create a "public option" for medicine – think of California's move to produce insulin and other meds:

https://prospect.org/health/its-time-for-public-pharma/

Or Massachusetts's MassBiologics, the "only non-profit, FDA-licensed manufacturer of vaccines" in the USA, which sells its generic tetanus and diptheria vaccines nationwide:

https://www.umassmed.edu/massbiologics/

The US has a long way to go when it comes to using public production to offer competitive discipline to private pharma. Sweden privatized its pharma in 1970. Cuba got there in 1960, and is a pharma powerhouse:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/11/28/somos-cuba/#omishambles

Meyersohn closes her excellent article with a warning and a promise: though public covid vaccines are a long way away, new vaccines for RSV and even cancer are in the pipeline, and without "substantial intervention," Moderna will be a "harbinger…of crises of inequitable access to come."



Cambodian dictator Hun Sen's Facebook photo of himself swimming in the blue Maldives sea. Superimposed over him in white sans-serif lettering on red rectangular backgrounds is a quote from a Cambodian Facebook user: 'Yes, our beaches are the most beautiful, but our leaders are the dirtiest in the world, aren’t they?'

How Facebook's Real Names policy helps Cambodia's thin-skinned dictator terrorize dissenters (permalink)

A common refrain from Facebook apologists and anti-anonymity activists is that its "Real Names Policy" promoted "civility" by making users "accountable" for their words. In this conception, snuffing out anonymous speech is key to protecting "the vulnerable" from trolls and other bad actors.

But while some trolls hide behind anonymity, others are only too happy to sign their vitriol. Donald Trump didn't need an anonymous account. Tucker Carlson is right there in the chyron. Nick Fuentes isn't hiding behind a pseudonym – he's proud to be associated with Holocaust denial.

Despite the moral panic about "cancel culture," the powerful can say outrageous and disgusting things without any meaningful consequence. But when it comes to speaking truth to power, anonymity protects the vulnerable from retaliation.

Nowhere will you find a better case-study of this phenomenon than in Cambodia, a basket-case, one-party dictatorship that has been ruled over by the corrupt, authoritarian dictator Hun Sen, a former general, since 1985.

Hun Sen's corruption and authoritarianism chafed at the Cambodian people, but his repressive statecraft allowed him to keep a tight grip on the reins of power. But all that nearly came to a halt in 2013, when an opposition movement, organized on Facebook, came within a whisker of defeating him during what should have been a sham election.

Other dictators would have used that moment to block Facebook, but not Hun Sen. After squeaking out a narrow victory, he decided to take control of Facebook in Cambodia and co-opt it as a tool of oppression. To do this, Hun Sen would weaponize the Real Names policy.

Because he was dictator, Hun Sen already knew the real names of every person in Cambodia, which meant that he could tell when a Cambodian poster used a pseudonym. Armed with this knowledge, Hun Sen forced Facebook to order Cambodians to post under their real names (which made them liable to arrest and torture) or fall silent.

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/meghara/facebook-cambodia-democracy#.km2QBoKME

Hun Sen then spent public funds to hire a bleating army of astroturf supporters from Filipino clickfarms who would "like" his posts and shout down Cambodians – especially exiled Cambodians speaking from abroad – who dared to criticize him:

https://qz.com/1203637/facebook-likes-are-a-powerful-tool-for-authoritarian-rulers-lawsuit-says

All of this created cover for the "Khmer Riche": politically connected insiders and Hun Sen's relatives, who looted the country, hired Pricewaterhousecooper to help them offshore their money through Cypriot banks, and procured glden passports from Cyprus to let them trip through the EU on luxury spending-sprees:

https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/cambodia-hunsen-wealth/

Earlier this month, Hun Sen took an "official visit" to the Maldives, which was commemorated by an official Facebook post that included a gallery of Hun Sen relaxing in a seaside luxury resort:

https://www.facebook.com/hunsencambodia/posts/pfbid02KYoqDAJbeMGyRP9xMYpntYEdKsczGQijRGYJiDDiPSV4u5DDxmwXuCjpRrse8AEtl

As Mech Dara1 wrote for Vod, the post racked up thousands of "fawning comments," along with a single, brave remark from "Ver To" (a pseudonymous account): "Yes, our beaches are the most beautiful, but our leaders are the dirtiest in the world, aren’t they?"

https://vodenglish.news/hun-sen-orders-police-to-find-facebook-beach-insulter/

Within hours, Hun Sen had vowed to use Facebook to hunt down and punish the person behind "Ver To," writing "This is a wicked man’s words. Please, police, find it immediately. Where is it?"

In an expanded version of Daral's article on Global Voices, we see Hun Sen's Interior Ministry swing into action to punish this mild act of dissent, with ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak saying:

This is not freedom of expression — this is insulting the leader of the country. … Even for me, we cannot accept this.

People who live abroad can say anything, but in Cambodia they cannot.

Even though the prison is crowded, there is enough space to hold these people.

Hun Sen knows that Facebook will help him hunt down this dissenter and jail them in one of his "crowded prisoners," because Facebook's Real Names policy dictates that this will happen.

The Real Names policy might as well be called "The Zuckerberg Doctrine." It originates with Mark Zuckerberg's oft-stated belief that people who present a different facet of their personality to different people are "two-faced." This is an abysmal, idiotic belief, one that requires that we related to our bosses the same way we relate to our lovers, and also to our grandparents. But on the plus side, outlawing anonymity and pseudonymity makes it a lot easier to assemble nonconsensual surveillance dossiers on our activities, social graph and beliefs, and then sell access to those dossiers to advertisers:

https://memex.craphound.com/2018/01/22/social-scientists-have-warned-zuck-all-along-that-the-facebook-theory-of-interaction-would-make-people-angry-and-miserable/

Lots of companies have tried for their own Real Names policy. Famously, it was a feature of Google Plus, Alphabet's failed Facebook competitor. More recently, Twitter's new owner has made moves to link Twitter accounts to identities by hiding posts that aren't from "Twitter Blue" accounts, and then insisting that these accounts must be verified with a phone number.

The powerful can abuse the powerless and get away with it, in large part because the powerless can't speak back without risking retaliation. Sexual abuse was a feature of many industries and large companies for decades, but it too anonymity to create the #MeToo movement. There, anonymity is a force for accountability – not a way to avoid it.

(Image: Hun Sen/Facebook, fair use, modified)


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