By ANDY BARNS
The global coronavirus pandemic has been met by gargantuan efforts on the part of companies and governments throughout the world to develop vaccines that can combat the virus and save lives. Unfortunately for the world’s poorest, however, the nature of the vaccine roll-out has been hampered by patents designed primarily to ensure the profits of companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and others.
The technologies used to produce vaccines have the potential to save countless lives, but they are being deliberately kept a secret by wealthier nations for the sake of their own companies’ profits. Additionally, this has allowed wealthier nations to hoard the majority of the existing vaccine supply. In other words, the property relations of capitalism (and the unevenness of nations) are interfering with our real ability to treat people.
The patent system helps ensure that the pharmaceutical giants can continue the profit-driven business model, leaving poorer nations unable to produce the vaccines. Thus, the vaccine becomes inequitably distributed, potentially harming many more lives and prolonging the global pandemic. Is there a better way?
Vaccine distribution under capitalism means profits first
Companies like Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, etc. are producing and selling vaccines for one essential purpose—to make profits. These companies produce as much vaccine as they are able and then sell it in batches, usually to richer countries that can buy them at exorbitant prices. For example, the Moderna vaccine will cost between $10 and $50 a dose depending on the size of the batch ordered. Some EU nations have negotiated a price of $25 per-dose—a cost that will rise for individual customers later on . Pfizer has similar prices.
This can become prohibitive for poorer nations. But since the human race now has the knowledge to produce these vaccines, surely it is in the interests of common sense that this knowledge be made readily available to all countries? So that these countries may produce their own? Not for capitalism! The patents on these vaccines ensure that these companies are allowed complete secrecy in their production techniques. This guarantees high profits—and low global vaccination rates.
This system necessarily fosters vaccine nationalism. For the wealthier countries, it means hoarding doses, buying in bulk from Big Pharma all that they need to vaccinate their own populations whilst health-care workers in other parts of the world remain vulnerable. The pandemic will surely continue long after it’s necessary because of this hoarding.
Health-care workers globally should logically receive the doses first. In the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which took over 284,000 lives globally, a similar scenario occurred . Then, as now, wealthier nations prioritized vaccination of their own populations, hoarding vaccine supply. A more equitable vaccine distribution to global health-care workers would have resulted in a shorter pandemic. Vaccines did not reach poor nations for years.
For the poorer countries, this means either developing their own vaccines or petitioning the bourgeois “international community” to intervene. For the former, the Cuban vaccine is very promising , given Cuba’s history of medical internationalism and the fact that this drug requires no cold storage. But the wealthier nations do not need to consider this option, their contracts with Big Pharma are locked in whether their populations agree or not, and the working classes have no say.
In the latter case, countries like India and South Africa joined together to petition the World Trade Organization to issue an intellectual property waiver on vaccines, denying them patents and therefore opening the technology to the globe. But rich nations blocked the measure, citing “innovation” .
The innovation lie
Private ownership of the means of production has always been championed by the ruling class as a necessary prerequisite for “innovation.” This lie is dutifully applied to patterns of information, including vaccines. So explains Thomas Cueni,* mouthpiece for organized pharmaceutical capital: “Demands for a release of patent information relating to vaccines would not increase supply by a single dose in the short term because they overlook the complexity of vaccine manufacture […] The euphoria over the development of highly effective vaccines has somehow created the impression that once a vaccine has been developed, a billion doses can roll out of the factories at the push of a button. I think we need to be aware of just how complex and difficult vaccine manufacturing is.” 
The terms “complex and difficult” therefore allow the big boys at Pfizer to handle production and sale. The same article handily points out that countries like India, Cuba, Thailand, and Senegal (among others) have the capacity to create vaccines. Yet the international cartel of Big Pharma cannot be made to share a pattern of information, for this pattern is the only thing that could motivate the cartel to invest the capital needed to develop vaccines. So says Cueni and similar mouthpieces of capital worldwide.
The tools already exist worldwide to begin production immediately. It’s not about producing a billion doses “at the push of a button” but about producing a billion doses equitably. The protection that Big Pharma feels it needs for its pattern of information is nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to continue selling as profitably as possible to the countries that can pay. In all walks of life under capitalism, this “innovation” lie has the same effect—the misapplication of technology that could be used to improve human life now, in the interests of securing private profits later.
Another element of the innovation lie is that publicly funded research and development is frequently used by private capital for profit, and the vaccine roll-out is no exception. Big Pharma did not follow the tidy capitalist fairy tale in which an innocent merchant sells medicine to the market, and because the product is so wholesome, the company makes a profit, and grows bigger and bigger. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic encouraged countries to pour billions into research, such as the Trump administration’s “Warp Speed” project , which began with at least $10 billion in allocations of public funds to the private sector for R&D.
Once the product is turned out by the private enterprise, it then has the gall to ask for further payments for shipments of the vaccine! In any rational world this would be rightly labeled as a swindle. Under modern monopoly capitalism, it is standard business to be glossed over in the press. Basically, via tax dollars, the working class paid for the vaccine twice.
Incidentally, the same applies to other sectors of the capitalist economy. One popular example is the original I-phone. This device is (Captain Obvious here!) a commercial product that made Apple billions and quickly spawned the inevitable capitalist competitor products—quickly eliminating any novelty. Yet, the GPS, touch screen, microchips, micro-antennae, memory, lithium battery, etc inside the phone were the result of many decades of public R&D. All Steve Jobs needed to do was assemble them together like Legos pieces to be heralded by the bourgeoisie as a genius.
The COVAX program as PR band-aid for capitalism
But what about the COVAX program? This is a global program meant to get doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine to poor countries. AstraZeneca is producing most doses through cooperation with the Serum Institute of India . When we look at the numbers taken alone, they do seem impressive. India is unsurprisingly getting the most projected doses (as of February 2021) at nearly 100 million doses. Pakistan is second at a mere 17 million. The total global amount of projected doses approaches 300 million .
To put the numbers into perspective, India’s total population as of March 2021 is 1.39 billion. Therefore, 100 million doses covers just over 7% of the population. Further, these numbers are projected numbers for the listed countries. Put another way, it’s stated as an “indicative distribution” . These are not as yet guaranteed doses, and they may be subject to change.
This is not to bemoan the COVAX program, and we certainly need more international cooperation. The heroic efforts of the distribution workers at the COVAX facility and the needs of frontline workers in poorer nations are not to be forgotten. But it is precisely these needs and efforts that highlight the serious deficiencies we still face. Pfizer is also a participant in the program, but their contribution makes only an insignificant amount of the projected (and needed) doses. The COVAX program could be so much more without the patent system and is a shadow of what it needs to be.
Solution: Democratic control through public ownership
Democratic control of vaccine production and distribution, and a complete abolition of the patent system, is the best immediate and long-term solution to this pandemic (and future ones). This includes the total expropriation of Big Pharma under workers’ control, and union jobs and pay for all pharmaceutical workers across the supply chain.
Global democratic control is the most efficient solution for saving human lives in future pandemics. Poorer nations may not have the ability to produce vaccines for novel viruses (at least if we ignore Cuba), but large concentrations of capital such as Moderna and Pfizer do. What if these concentrations of capital were transformed into public property? What if their labs and technicians were hired for the common weal? What if the patent system were abandoned, as the anachronism it is? Then technologies such as the COVID-19 vaccines, and future vaccines, would be produced for the express purpose of sharing the knowledge globally. These concentrations of capital, turned into common means of research, would be the advanced scientific vanguard for the whole world.
Of course, if we abolish private property in medical research, there is no reason that scientists hired by the former Pfizer or Moderna companies would need to be constrained within four walls, nor would the results of their research. Regardless of national origin, all humans operate on the same biology. There is enormous brainpower in the scientific community that is clearly on display with innovations such as the Cuban vaccine, and doctors and scientists in poorer nations are only lacking in equipment and cutting edge scientific data. They could help not only their own populations but also the scientific world, if only science itself were not hampered by the needs of capitalist profit and the patent system.
Caregivers, not just scientists, would also benefit enormously from expropriating private property in the medical field. The hospital or clinic is also a site of work, and therefore, under capitalism, operates by the exploitation of workers through the extraction of surplus value. Caregivers need union jobs and pay at all hospitals, and even better, total control of the workplace.
Finally, the phenomenal waste of private appropriations of public funds would be ended. No longer would government feel compelled to give Big Pharma billions for R&D and then billions more for the finished product. Socialist management of the pharmaceutical industry would be far more efficient, and the only losers would be the current wealthy owners of capital, the current private swindlers of public health and well being.
* Cueni is general director of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, representing the capitalist owners of Big Pharma.
Late 2020 pricing information on the top-profile vaccines.
Harvard Business Review discusses the “Swine Flu” and the eerily familiar nature of the vaccine roll-out.
Left Voice reports on the Cuban vaccine.
Rich nations block requests by poorer nations to acquire vaccines.
Information on Operation Warp Speed.
Wikipedia article detailing aspects of the COVAX program.
COVAX’s distribution forecast for February 2021.