December 14, 2020 – The development of a COVID-19 vaccine is a global endeavor. The scientists and entrepreneurs creating the vaccine are of many nationalities and immigration statuses — as are the millions of people impacted by the pandemic who are anxiously awaiting a vaccine.
The three pharmaceutical companies with vaccines near-ready for distribution—BioNTech, Pfizer, and Moderna—were all founded by immigrants.
Consider the partnership between the German company BioNTech SE and the American company Pfizer Inc., which has now completed a working vaccine.
BioNTech was founded by a husband-wife team of Turkish origin—Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci—one of whom was brought to Germany from Turkey as a child, while the other was born in Germany to a Turkish father.
The U.S.-based company Pfizer was founded by an immigrant from Germany, Charles Pfizer. Its current CEO is an immigrant from Greece, Albert Bourla.
Another U.S. company with a promising COVID-19 vaccine in development is Moderna. The founders include immigrants from Canada and Lebanon, and the CEO is from France.
The Lebanese cofounder of Moderna is Noubar Afeyan, who received a Ph.D. in biochemical engineering from MIT while on a foreign student visa. He was able to stay and continue working in the United States on an H-1B visa—a visa for high-skilled workers that President Trump has repeatedly attempted to ban from the country. He is now a U.S. citizen.
The importance of immigrants in the development of the vaccine extends well beyond the senior leadership of these companies. Business Insider reports that:
“Moderna received or renewed 27 high-skilled immigrant visa applications in 2019, according to analysis of data from the U.S. Office of Foreign Labor Certification. In 2019, that number was 100 for Pfizer.”
According to data compiled by the New American Economy Research Fund, immigrants account for nearly 25% of all workers in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing nationwide, as well as more than a quarter of all physicians.
Vice President Mike Pence has said that: “Only in America could you see the kind of innovation that’s resulted in the development of a vaccine in record time.”
That statement fails to acknowledge that the vaccine is being developed through international partnerships and with the critical participation of immigrants within the United States.
The Trump administration has failed to acknowledge the role immigrant professionals play in developing a vaccine. In addition, the administration has yet to provide any financial relief to the many immigrant families in the United States who have suffered the same economic devastation as everyone else during this pandemic.
American families that include immigrants were largely left out of the $2 trillion economic stimulus package which was signed into law in March of 2020, shortly after the pandemic hit. This is despite the fact that undocumented immigrants paid over $30 billion in taxes in 2018.
A bill passed by the House of Representatives in May 2020 would have made non-U.S. citizens eligible for COVID-19 economic relief, but it did not pass the Senate. Considering the role of immigrants as essential workers in the U.S. economy, including in frontline healthcare occupations—and the fact that everyone is equally impacted by the pandemic—their exclusion from relief is unconscionable.
Immigrants are part of the solution to the COVID-19 pandemic. Foreign-born scientists and entrepreneurs are playing an integral role in the quest for a vaccine. And the economic impact of the pandemic cannot be effectively mitigated without taking all families into account. The United States and governments worldwide should recognize that.
ImmigrationImpact.com is a project of the American Immigration Council.