Covid-19 vaccine — a hostage of market dogma


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Update: This article was originally published on February 9th 2021 on Medium. The developments since in the context of this story are added at the end of the article. 

While the world has been in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic for over a year by now, a glimmer of hope has started appearing in recent months with the arrival and regulatory approval of several covid-19 vaccines. Several have now become available globally since the initial race toward immunization development. However, if the first months since their availability are any indication of the future, the global vaccination efforts will be a painstakingly slow process, with the majority of the global population projected to receive vaccines only in the coming years. As even western countries struggle to secure and distribute the necessary doses from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, the majority of the developing world (and coincidentally a majority of the planet’s inhabitants) can do nothing but wait for vaccines to become available to them as well, perhaps sometime in 2022 according to the current estimations. Nearly the entire continent of Africa, with its 1.3 billion people, is only estimated to achieve widespread vaccination from 2023 onwards. It is perhaps worth keeping in mind that when it comes to pandemics, no one is safe until everyone is safe.

Does it have to be that way? Is the world truly at the mercy of the production capacity of a handful pharmaceutical companies? And if so, should we really accept years-long vaccination programs each time a future pandemic inevitably strikes? The answer to all three questions is a resounding no. While the rapid vaccine development is a great scientific triumph enabled by global cooperation and massive publicly funded research efforts (all the currently approved vaccines, and many others, were developed in publicly funded research institutes or through public programs such as US Operation Warp Speed, which alone spent at least $10 billion), the actual vaccine production and distribution is a complete global failure of western governments caught in the neoliberal ideology whose principles they do not dare question. The two main principles here being the belief in absolute efficiency of the markets, and the sanctity of private profits.

The first principle prevents any intervention of governments to ensure as fast as possible global vaccination, which could in principle be achieved in a matter of months. Instead, every country is left queuing at the doors of Pfizer, scrambling to acquire even fractions of the necessary vaccine doses while painfully deciding who in each country can receive a vaccine — and who must wait. The second neoliberal principle cannot be violated as profits of the shareholders (in this case a narrow selection of pharmaceutical companies with the right patents) have to be ensured even at the expense of the investors (governments who for years financed vaccine development through public institutions) or the stakeholders (incidentally, the world). This need not be this way. The question being asked should not be “What are the production capacities of Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca and how long will it take to receive the doses?” but “What is the global production capacity for vaccine production?” The answer to the latter question is… significant. Estimations from 2019 point to a figure of about 8.3 billion doses in the best case and half of that in a moderate scenario. The world possesses many pharmaceutical plants capable of vaccine production all over the globe, many of which have been steadily increasing their production capacity since 2006 as a part of the Global Action Plan for Influenza Vaccines led by the WHO — yet another public program to ensure our survival. These now stand idle as they do not possess the intellectual property for the vaccines in question. That is, the intellectual property funded and developed in public institutions with massive public funding and handed over to a selection of pharmaceutical conglomerates. As the chief of BioNTech (the company behind the technology that is now marketed as the Pfizer vaccine) recently admitted, the company developed its covid-19 vaccine with the help of continued research funding from the EU.

It is clear that (western) governments could massively ramp up the global production of the coronavirus vaccine, making it available in abundance to virtually every country in need. However, this would require waving away the corresponding patents, making their production available to any pharmaceutical company in the world with the required technology. Millions, possibly tens of millions of doses could be produced this way — daily. But as described earlier, this would violate sacred neoliberal principles as it would intervene in the markets in a way that benefits stakeholder (interventions that benefit shareholders, such as emergency cash injections, massive government contracts or government insurance policies for corporations are never objectionable) as well as cut into private profits of companies that would not be able to hold monopolies over the vaccines at the expense of the public.

This is hardly a ludicrous idea and there seems to be no natural law that would prevent the utilization of global pharmaceutical capacity to effectively apply publicly funded (and to a large extent publicly developed) vaccine technology against covid-19. Instead, the only obstacle is the currently dominant political ideology that renders any government ineffective in its capacity to solve a crisis, as any allowed approach has to work within a framework of that ideology. So while the world waits to slowly receive the necessary doses of vaccines from a selection of no less than a handful of companies and governments plan to vaccinate their population sometime within the next two years, the virus continues to spread rapidly. This not only continues to devastate communities all over the world, but perhaps even more importantly presents ample opportunity for the virus to mutate, develop and acquire new capabilities. Every delayed day of vaccination increases the chances of its spreading and with that the odds that it mutates and becomes more deadly. Fortunately for now the current vaccines appear to still be mostly effective against the new strains of the virus. But we have no such guarantees for the future. As The New York Times reports, the AstraZeneca vaccine has already been shown to be significantly less effective against certain new variants of the virus. Every day we delay the global vaccination is a gamble we should not and do not have to take. The failure to reject blind faith in markets and apply the power of the government where such power need be applied could prove detrimental for the world and unnecessarily stretch the pandemic even further into the future. Such pathological behavior could hardly be described as anything other than utter irrationality, but despite what we are told by free-market apostles, the irrationality yet again proves itself to be the cornerstone of the market.

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Since the original publication of this piece, several important developments have taken place in the world regarding global efforts in vaccination against covid-19. Namely, the US has managed to pursue by all accounts an extraordinary campaign to inoculate its population, delivering in excess of two million doses of a vaccine a day.  A staggering number, far ahead of the world. In fact, the number of doses administered in the US alone accounts for about 20 per cent of the global covid-19 shots given. Commendable as it may be however, we should not have any illusions about how the United States got to be in that position. That is, by hoarding global vaccine supplies, indirectly blocking exports of necessary materials for their production and most importantly holding the rest of the world hostage with relentless insistence on the protection of the intellectual property of their pharmaceutical giants. The opposition to a so-called waiver of patents is spearheaded by the US, and its client states like the UK and Canada, or as they are commonly referred to in the enlightened circles of the west – the World. Meanwhile, what some might consider the actual World, more than 100 nations, led by India which alone accounts for nearly a fifth of the world population, is calling for at least a temporary lifting of the intellectual property rights. They are aided in the effort by the World Trade Organization (WTO), by no means a radical socialist organization. But as we know from endless examples, what the actual World thinks often makes no difference when it comes to pursuing the World affairs.

Regardless of the moral justification of this campaign, this push for extending the vaccine production by lifting IP protections comes in light of a catastrophe in India, where a second wave of covid-19 is proving devastating for the population. Admittedly there is a number of reasons such as local mismanagement, corruption and recklessness of the Modi government that have contributed to the ongoing disaster. However the fact remains that despite the dire situation, the US refuses to engage in a desperately needed systemic change of the intellectual property protection on a global stage (even if only temporarily), and is instead resorting to symbolic gestures of aid. This mentality of aiding while doing nothing to actually fix the problem is often  second nature to the powerful. So while the White House is at last considering doing something to help supply the world with the covid-19 vaccine, it is clear that people in charge are weighing the options and seeing if it would be possible to boost the US production instead. 

While it is not obvious how doing away with patent protections could automatically “…reduce the safety of vaccines…” the real reason for such fierce opposition might be much simpler – money. Profits of the major pharmaceutical manufacturers (Pfizer for example paid out $8.4 billion in dividends last year alone) need to be protected and more importantly, the status quo of the intellectual property protections should remain unchallenged. Major corporations such as Pfizer have spent significant resources over the years in lobbying powerful western nanny-states. These have in turn produced a number of “international trade agreements” and “trade treaties” which bind many poorer countries in a tangled web of laws written by corporate lawyers, and subjugate them to private corporate courts or “arbitration councils”. These make sure that important decisions, such as pandemic vaccine distribution let say, can not be made democratically, but have to be left for private corporations to decide as their enormous profits and IP rights have to be guaranteed – in perpetuum. The most radical of measures allowed under such corporate “leadership” is perhaps some sort of limited “licensing agreement” akin to production outsourcing; on terms of the right-holding corporation that is. But nothing more. This fundamental principle of the current international order cannot be questioned or it might set a risky precedent. Namely that the population can be in charge of their own destiny and perhaps have access to the life saving drugs, the development of which they paid for. Such thinking is dangerous in the eyes of the masters of the world.

 

Matt Hribersek is currently a postgraduate student in chemistry, living in Stockholm, Sweden. 

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