Seemingly everywhere you turn these days, someone is expressing doubts about “globalization” and lamenting its impact on American workers. This obviously has been a theme of the Trump administration and its America First approach to U.S. trade and immigration policy, but you may be surprised to learn that a lot of Biden folks have been saying similar stuff in recent years (see, e.g., this recent Wall Street Journal piece). And, unsurprisingly, the media—always on the lookout for a sympathetic victim of capitalist greed—has been similarly focused on globalization’s alleged harms.
Indeed, when articles like the WSJ piece above are written or political speeches are made, the sources usually couch any benefits of globalization—assuming they speak of them at all—in terms of consumers (the proverbial “cheap T‐shirt” made abroad) or corporations and their shareholders (insert evils of capitalism here). Few stop to consider the broader benefits that the relatively free movement of goods, services, labor, capital, and ideas across national borders confers upon each of us and the nation or world more broadly.
So that’s what we’ll do today, looking at perhaps the best recent example of such globalization benefits: the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines that we’ll hopefully soon have injected in our arms. As you’ll see, every part of the vaccines—from corporate leadership to investment to research and development to production and distribution—depends on “globalization” and would suffer from government attempts to block it.
The Companies and Their Leaders
BioNTech, a German company with an office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was founded by Dr. Ugur Sahin and his wife, Dr. Özlem Türeci—both of Turkish descent. The former immigrated to Germany from Turkey with his parents when he was 4 (his father worked in a German auto plant); the latter was born in Germany to Turkish immigrants. In 2019, Dr. Sahin won the Iranian Mustafa Prize, which is awarded to Muslims in science and technology.
Pfizer, the New York‐based multinational with offices around the world, is run by Albert Bourla, a native of Greece who began at the company’s Greek outpost in the early 1990s. Bourla worked across Europe before moving to Pfizer’s global headquarters in Manhattan and later becoming CEO. Other top Pfizer execs include Angela Hwang, a South Africa native; Mikael Dolsten, a Swede; and Rod MacKenzie and John Young, both from the U.K.. Oh, and Pfizer was started in New York by two German immigrants—Charles Pfizer and Charles Erhart—in 1849.
Boston‐based Moderna’s co‐founder and chairman is Noubar Afeyan, a two‐time immigrant. Born to Armenian parents in Lebanon, he immigrated as a teenager to Canada and then moved to the United States after college to earn his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s CEO, also immigrated to America (from France) for grad school. The company’s other co‐founder, Derrick Rossi, was born in Canada and is here on an H-1B visa. Moderna’s chief medical officer, Tal Zaks, is Israeli and also here on an employment‐based visa. The chief digital and operational excellence officer is from France, and their chief technical operations and quality officer is from Spain. (Seriously, it’s like the UN over there.)
Finally, the Trump administration’s point man for the vaccine, Operation Warp Speed chief Moncef Slaoui, is a Moroccan‐born Muslim immigrant from Belgium (and now a U.S. citizen) who was formerly at British multinational pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, serving as chairman of its vaccines division and global head of R&D. (He was also on Moderna’s board of directors prior to joining OWS.)
All three companies are also major beneficiaries of global capital markets. Moderna was a concept‐stage company for Boston area biotech venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering, which “has a history of building innovative biotech companies in‐house,” according to Crunchbase News’ Joanna Glassner. It opened as a private company in 2012 with a $40 million VC jump‐start, and then “raised over $2.7 billion in venture and growth funding, with backing from a mix of venture capital firms and corporate investors.” Moderna also received millions from the Gates Foundation in 2016 to develop therapeutics based on messenger RNA to treat HIV. It went public in December 2018.
Before the pandemic, BioNTech used various global private share listings to raise hundreds of millions of dollars and create the 1,800-person company. The company also benefited from its founders’ $1.4 billion sale of their previous company to Japan‐based Astellas Pharma in 2016. Last year, the Gates Foundation invested $55 million to fund BioNTech’s work on HIV and tuberculosis, and the company went public. (Unsurprisingly, those shares have soared this year.)
Pfizer, of course, is a giant multinational corporation whose global revenues and investor base (a $224 billion market capitalization, as of Monday) allowed it to single‐handedly fund, at a cost of about $2 billion, the BioNTech vaccine’s testing, manufacturing and distribution—without significant government assistance, by the way—and zoom past Moderna for the lead in the COVID-19 vaccine race. For example, “both Pfizer and Moderna were facing the problem of too few minority volunteers, but Pfizer had the deep pockets to solve it. The firm expanded its trial from 30,000 to 44,000, a decision… estimated cost the firm hundreds of millions of dollars.” As Pfizer CEO Bourla explained of the company’s $2 billion risk, “if it fails, it goes to our pocket. And at the end of the day, it’s only money. That will not break the company.” Must be nice.
The Research and Development
The vaccines’ research and development unsurprisingly followed the medical field’s longstanding model of global collaboration. For example, though Moderna’s researchers famously needed only two days to design their vaccine, they relied on a genetic map of the virus that was created by Chinese researcher Yong‐Zhen Zhang and his team, including Australian Eddie Holmes. That map was released to the world on January 10 in an open‐source depository and notified to the world via a single Holmes tweet on January 11. As chronicled by Zeynep Tufecki, these actions “sent shockwaves through the global scientific community” and were quite heroic: “the sequence was published ten days before China acknowledged the severity of the problem… [and] while China—and the WHO, which depended on China for information—were still downplaying what was going on, in their official statements.”
Meanwhile, yet another immigrant, Hungarian‐born Katalin Karikó, was responsible for the messenger RNA (“mRNA”) technology behind both the Moderna and BioNTech vaccines: