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Less than a month has passed since vaccination campaigns began in some of the richest countries on the planet, and we are already facing a crisis of enormous proportions. The imperialist states are waging a real “vaccine war” against each other and the multinational pharmaceutical companies. All of them are engaged in speculation, at the expense of the lives of millions of people across the world.
On January 29, the European Union implemented extraordinary measures to block the export of vaccines from its territory (27 countries, no longer including the United Kingdom) to other countries. They want to prevent companies producing vaccines in the EU from selling them to other parts of the world before finishing the quantity of doses that have been committed to the bloc’s main countries. This is a new manifestation of the reactionary and imperialist character of the EU, which is hoarding billions of vaccines without questioning patent rights and production in the hands of big laboratories. In Africa and Latin America, meanwhile, only a few thousand doses have started to arrive. We had already witnessed these kinds of reactionary nationalist measures at the beginning and height of the pandemic when Germany and France prohibited the export of respirators to countries in urgent need of them, such as Italy or, even worse, to African countries with almost no respirators.
The crisis has led to extreme tension with the United Kingdom, where the company AstraZeneca has vaccine production plants. The EU is accusing the UK of withholding products that had already been committed to the EU, and the British authorities have countered by accusing the EU of “vaccine nationalism,” while refusing to recognize the mandate of the EU’s diplomatic envoy. This is the first major crisis between the UK and the EU after Brexit, the UK’s exit from the EU, was finalized a month ago. The crisis has also led Hungary to disengage with the EU, ordering the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm and the Russian vaccine Sputnik V on its own, fueling the Orbán government’s disputes with the European Union. China and Russia, in turn, are trying to take advantage of this crisis to gain markets for their vaccines, signing contracts with countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. They are trying to impose conditions that benefit their own companies, while countries such as Brazil or Turkey have already complained about delays in deliveries of vaccines sold by the Chinese company Sinovac. The “vaccine war” is thus another component of the increasingly heated geopolitical disputes.
The EU invested 2.7 billion euros in vaccine development and agreed to purchase 600 million doses from Pfizer, 160 million from Moderna, 400 million from AstraZeneca, 400 million from Curevac, another 400 million from Johnson & Johnson, and 300 million from Sanofi — a total of 2.26 billion doses. Since each person needs two doses, this means there is a total of 1.13 billion full vaccinations, which is almost three times the total population of the 27 EU countries. Clearly, this is a question of hoarding in anticipation of the fact that some vaccines will not be sufficiently effective. In the meantime, countries in Africa or Latin America are being left behind completely in vaccination plans. In the case of the State of Israel, the most advanced country in the world in terms of immunization (after having paid 40 percent more than other countries), it is imposing a cruel Apartheid system on the Palestinian population, who is denied access to vaccines.
Indeed, the wealthiest nations, which account for only 14 percent of the world’s population, have in the last few months purchased more than half (53 percent) of all the vaccines that are most likely to work. And according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, the world’s 70 poorest countries will only be able to vaccinate one in ten people by the end of 2021. Countries such as Canada, on the other hand, have purchased enough vaccines to inoculate their population at least five times over. So far, out of a total of 64 million vaccines that have already been administered globally, 38.7 million were given in the United States and another 15 million in China. In contrast, according to the statistical portal Our World in Data, only 18,000 have been administered in Africa which is currently experiencing a deadly second wave of infections.
All this is now exacerbated by the pharmaceutical companies’ delay in delivering vaccines to the richest countries. This week, the German government warned that there could be a shortage of vaccines in the next ten weeks, and in Spain people are worried that the whole vaccination plan could fail, since the second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will not arrive on time. And while the European Medicines Agency approved the AstraZeneca vaccine this week, Germany announced that it will not be given to people over 65, the highest-risk group, because its safety has not yet been proven for this group. The UK-based company is the fifth largest pharmaceutical company in the world, but it announced a few days ago that it will only provide 60 percent of the doses promised to the EU, raising tensions with Brussels. Faced with this shortage, some countries like the UK are postponing the second dose of vaccines, even against the advice of experts.
Added to this is the fear of mutated strains, such as the one that is spreading in the UK and is now estimated to be present in more than 60 countries. This week, Germany banned the entry of people from countries where the most cases with the mutation had been detected, in particular the UK, Portugal, South Africa, and Brazil.
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, told the World Economic Forum at Davos: “Europe invested billions to help develop the world‘s first Covid vaccines and create a global common good. Now the companies must deliver and honour their obligations.” In a similar vein, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, in an opinion piece published in May 2020, declared that the vaccine must be a “global public good.” What imperialist cynicism. The EU is not developing any “global public good” — what it wants is to hoard as many vaccines as possible, and is now blocking their export to other countries.
Everything indicates that the tendencies toward “every man for himself” are strengthening. The large multinational capitalist corporations are speculating with a business worth billions. They are taking advantage of secret contracts with governments, full of clauses hidden from the population. And now they sell the promised doses “to the highest bidder” before they are even produced.
This is another brutal demonstration of the irrationality of capitalism, in which each corporation, with the support of its respective state, has researched on its own, in absolute secrecy, in order to guarantee its patent. This has prevented scientific exchange between different tests and trials. They sign contracts for the future without even having tested the vaccines. Every company competes with all the others to monopolize markets, without caring in the least about the needs about the poorest people of the planet, who remain without access to vaccines.
The pharmaceuticals obtained huge profits and extraordinary clauses in the contracts, which they signed with each country separately (or with the EU as a whole). These onerous conditions remain largely under the strictest secrecy, although some have been leaked to the media, including flexible deadlines for supply, patent protection, and — the most scandalous part — immunity clauses to avoid liability in case something goes wrong. In the case of adverse effects on the population, companies cannot be sued by governments or citizens. In other cases, countries are prohibited from donating or selling the doses to a third party, which is another blockade for vaccines to reach the poorest countries. Some contracts include clauses to suspend supplies if a state makes the negotiated prices public. This has allowed them, according to some reports, to charge the EU $2.19 for each dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, while South Africa is paying more than twice as much, $5.25.
But in this case, the irrationality resulting from capitalist anarchy is even more extreme, as a global pandemic can only be eradicated if contagion is limited around the world. We already witnessed, at the beginning of the pandemic, that, as a result of global connections in the chains of production, commerce, and the movement of people, a virus that began to reproduce among human beings in the distant lands of Wuhan spread in just a few days to Rome, New York, and Beijing. Furthermore, some experts warn that if vaccination plans fail, or if a large part of the world remains without immunization, this will lead to further mutations of the virus, generating new strains that could be resistant to vaccines that have already been given, which would result in a resounding global failure.
Capitalist Irrationality Against the Majority of Humanity
At a meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO) on October 15-16, 2020, India and South Africa proposed the suspension of certain articles of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). This would allow patents on vaccines and other Covid-related technologies to be released. The proposal was supported by some Latin American and African countries, but was unanimously rejected by the United States, the main EU countries (including the “progressive” government of the PSOE and Unidas Podemos in the Spanish State), Australia, and Japan. Although the United States under the Biden administration has rejoined the WHO — an institution it had left under Trump’s orders — this imperialist country is unlikely to change its position one iota when it comes to patent monopolies.
An alliance of non-governmental organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, and others, is demanding exemptions from intellectual property rights regarding vaccines and medicines for Covid. They point out that patents in the hands of private groups is already creating outrageous situations. An antiviral treatment with remdesivir costs $3,120 in the United States, while generic versions licensed in India cost between $587 and $792 per treatment even though “the estimated minimum cost to manufacture remdesivir with a reasonable profit margin is only $9 per treatment.”
The monopoly ownership of vaccine patents by a handful of capitalist multinational corporations is already causing all kinds of cruel inequalities in vaccine distribution. Whoever pays the most, gets the most — this is the motto guiding the pharmaceutical companies, even if this means leaving large swaths of the world without vaccines. This does not only mean more deaths in the poorest countries, more crises in their economies, increased migration to escape hunger, and more unemployment. It also means that if a large part of the world does not obtain vaccines, the pandemic will be more difficult to eradicate. But the logic of capitalist profit is the opposite of rationality and planning for social needs, as this crisis is tragically illustrating.
Patents and intellectual property are nothing more than private appropriation of a public good: the scientific and technical knowledge that has been accumulated over years or decades, the product of extensive research in different countries, largely financed with public money in universities, hospitals, or research centers all over the planet. In the case of some vaccines like that from Moderna, the funding is almost completely public. This company used technology developed by the government as the basis for its vaccine, and then got nearly $1 billion of public money to develop it. Finally, the U.S. government paid another $1.5 billion for advanced purchases. In other words, the entire project was paid for with public money, but the patent remains in private hands. Public funding is no less important for the vaccines from Novavax, Curevac, and Johnson & Johnson. And although private funding has been important in some other cases, they have also benefited from the advance purchase of millions of doses, an indirect form of state funding.
Scientific knowledge — just like art, culture, or land — is a public good of humanity. But under capitalism, it is appropriated in a rent-seeking manner by a handful of private companies using patents, intellectual property rights, trademarks, and similar mechanisms. In the case of vaccines and medicines, this is even more serious, because it is a question of life or death for millions of people. This is not only the case with Covid. For example, more than 100,000 children in India die of pneumonia each year, a disease that could be prevented with the PCV13 vaccine. But the patent is held by Pfizer, and the vaccine is prohibitively expensive in that country.
The unequal distribution of patents worldwide offers a snapshot of the structure of imperialism in this field. In 2019, 3,224,200 patent applications were registered worldwide — China, the United States, Japan, Korea, and the European Patent Office accounted for 84.7 percent of the total. The combined number of registrations in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Oceania was just 3.3 percent.
Vaccines for All: For the Liberation of Patents and the Nationalization of Pharmaceutical Companies and Laboratories
Some European countries and the United States are already experiencing a third wave of the pandemic, which continues to ravage Latin America. Employment continues to fall, and a severe economic and social crisis is underway. However, the crisis is not the same for everyone: in the last year alone, 100 million people were pushed into poverty, while the 500 richest people on the planet — representing 0.001 percent of the world population — saw their wealth grow more than at any time in the last decade. This abysmal social inequality is part of the DNA of the deadliest virus, which is capitalism. Faced with this scenario, all governments — whether conservative or “progressive” — have responded to the crisis with mobility restrictions, curfews, and increased police presence in the streets. They claim “there are no resources” to do anything else, but they refuse to touch the capitalists’ profits. Instead, they are placing the burden of the crisis on the backs of the workers and poor nations of the world, increasing their indebtedness, which will mean more pressure from the IMF and other financial agencies for new cuts and austerity in the short term.
The struggle for vaccines for everyone and for the liberation of patents is urgent in the face of the catastrophe that is the pandemic. In the same way, immediate state control of all pharmaceutical companies and laboratories is necessary, to put them under the control of health professionals and in the service of rational plans of vaccine and test production and distribution. These companies and the resources of private health care must be nationalized under workers’ control. Emergency increases in health and education budgets, as well as hiring additional healthcare personnel to give the vaccines and avoid the collapse of hospitals, should be funded with extraordinary taxes on large fortunes. Instead of paying the foreign debt, it is necessary to cancel the debt of semicolonial countries. Otherwise, the working masses will be forced to pay for the crisis.
Such a program cannot be imposed on the capitalist vampires with online petitions or formal statements to the WHO. Nor can we expect anything from the (neo)reformist parties who join national governments (as in Spain) and refuse to implement emergency measures. The only way to implement these kinds of measures is to develop the common struggle of the working class, women, and youth at an international level. For this, we need to fight against the union bureaucracies that have supported reactionary “national unity” throughout the pandemic, refusing to fight for the necessary measures.
The growth of reactionary nationalist tendencies in the imperialist states and the brutal speculation by the multinational corporations makes it necessary to pose an internationalist, anticapitalist, and anti-imperialist perspective. We call on all working-class organizations to campaign for urgent means of struggle, starting with the demand for the abolition of patents, vaccines for all, and the medicine, equipment, and funds necessary to combat the pandemic. There is no time to lose — our lives are worth more than their profits.
The Trotskyist Fraction — Fourth International is an international revolutionary organization that publishes the La Izquierda Diario / Left Voice international network of online newspapers in 13 countries and eight languages. It is made up of:
ARGENTINA: Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) / BRAZIL: Revolutionary Workers Movement (MRT) / CHILE: Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR) / MEXICO: Socialist Workers Movement (MTS) / BOLIVIA: Revolutionary Workers League (LOR-CI) / SPANISH STATE: Revolutionary Workers Current (CRT) / FRANCE: Revolutionary Workers Current (CCR), part of the NPA (New Anticapitalist Party) / GERMANY: Revolutionary Internationalist Organization (RIO) / UNITED STATES: editors of Left Voice / VENEZUELA: Workers League for Socialism (LTS) / URUGUAY: Socialist Workers Current (CTS) / Sympathizing organizations: ITALY: Revolutionary Internationalist Fraction (FIR) / PERU: Socialist Workers Current (CST) / COSTA RICA: Revolutionary Socialist Organization (OSR).