In May 2020, the U.S. unemployment rate was 13.3%,1 which means 21 million Americans were unemployed. Not surprisingly, financial stress is a major concern, with 88% of Americans surveyed by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) saying that the COVID-19 pandemic is creating stress for their personal financial situation.2
Fifty-four percent were particularly worried about having enough money saved for emergency savings or retirement, while another 48% were worried about paying bills.
A report by the Well Being Trust (WBT) and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care that up to 75,000 people may die during the COVID-19 pandemic from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide, which they deemed "deaths of despair" caused, in part, by unprecedented economic failure paired with massive unemployment.3
This experience of scarcity and financial uncertainty is not being felt by all, however. In stark contrast, many of the richest among us — particularly health care and biotech billionaires — have gotten even richer due to COVID-19, profiting handsomely off the pandemic that's left the general public financially reeling.
Pandemic Propels Moderna CEO to the Billionaire's Club
Forbes compiled a list of 10 health care billionaires who collectively raked in more than $7 billion since March 11, 2020 — the day the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.4 Topping the list is Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, the biotech firm that's seen as the frontrunner for developing a COVID-19 vaccine. According to Forbes:5
"When the WHO declared a pandemic, Bancel's estimated net worth was some $720 million. Since then, Moderna's stock has rallied more than 103%, lifting his fortune to an estimated $1.5 billion. A French citizen, Bancel first joined the billionaire ranks on April 2, when Moderna's stock rose on the news that the firm was planning to begin phase two trials of its vaccine."
Moderna partnered with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci to create the vaccine. In February 2020, its stock price increased 78.1% when it announced that its messenger RNA vaccine was ready for clinical trials.6 "The company's CEO has become a new billionaire overnight," wrote Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC).7
Moderna began human trials of its experimental mRNA vaccine in March 2020, and its stock soared again in May, hitting $29 billion, even though the company currently doesn't sell any products,8 when it released early results from its Phase 1 study of 45 healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 55 — the first released from a study involving human volunteers.
Moderna's press release9 stated that 25 participants who received two doses of its low or medium dose vaccine had levels of binding antibodies — the type that are used by the immune system to fight the virus but do not prevent viral infections — at levels approximating or exceeding those found in the blood of patients who recovered from COVID-19.10
Data for the more significant neutralizing antibodies, which stop viruses from entering cells, was reported for only eight people, with Moderna stating that levels in each of these initial participants met or exceeded antibody levels seen in recovered COVID-19 patients.
Four study subjects experienced a "Grade 3" adverse event, which is described by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as "severe or medically significant but not immediately life-threatening; hospitalization or prolongation of hospitalization indicated; limiting self-care" such as "bathing, dressing and undressing, feeding self, using the toilet, taking medications."11
During Phase 2 trials, 600 people will receive the vaccine, while a Phase 3 trial is expected to start in July 2020 — an unprecedented move in terms of typical vaccine development timelines. Bancel owns a 9% stake in the company, which received a grant of up to $483 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to accelerate its COVID-19 vaccine development.12
Nine More COVID-19 Billionaires
Making up the rest of Forbes' list is a mix of entrepreneurs, biotech executives and diagnostic test makers, which come from seven different countries:13
1. Gustavo Denegri — With a net worth of $4.5 billion, which is up 32% since the beginning of the pandemic, Denegri has a 45% stake in DiaSorin, a biotech company based in Italy. DiaSorin makes swab-based diagnostic tests for COVID-19 as well as antibody blood testing kits for the virus.
2. Seo Jung-Jin — Jung-Jin co-founded Celltrion, a biopharma company in Seoul. Jung-Jin's net worth is $8.4 billion, up 22% thanks to the company's experimental antiviral treatment for COVID-19, along with a self-administered diagnostic test that gives results in 15 minutes, which is expected to come to the market this summer.
3. Alain Mérieux — Mérieux's $7.6 billion net worth is tied to BioMérieux, the diagnostic testing company he founded in 1963. It's a branch of Institut Mérieux, a medical company founded by his grandfather in 1897. BioMérieux developed a faster version of a COVID-19 diagnostic test kit that was released in March 2020.
4. Maja Oeri — Oeri is a descendent of Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche, the founder of pharmaceutical giant Roche. She owns about 5% of Roche's shares, with a net worth of $3.2 billion; Roche has clinical trials ongoing for its arthritis drug tocilizumab, which it is hoping to transition to a COVID-19 treatment, as well as a serology test to detect antibodies in people who have had COVID-19.
5. Leonard Schleifer — His net worth is $2.2 billion, a rise of 11% due to the pandemic. He founded Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which is conducting clinical trials of its rheumatoid arthritis drug sarilumab on COVID-19 patients.
6. George Yancopoulos — Yancopoulos is Regeneron's chief scientific officer; his net worth is $1.2 billion (up 14% since the beginning of the pandemic).
7. and 8. Thomas and Andreas Struengmann — The Struengmann twins have a net worth of $6.9 billion. They first made their fortune by selling generic drug company Hexal to Novartis in 2005, and they invest in biotech and health care companies. One of their investments is BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer and Fosun Pharmaceuticals on a COVID-19 vaccine that's currently in human trials.
9. Li Xiting — Xiting cofounded Mindray Medical International, China's largest medical equipment producer. It tripled its production capacity of ventilators since the start of the pandemic. Xiting's net worth is $12.6 billion, which is up 1% due to COVID-19.