Capitalist Competition Is Sabotaging the Race for a Vaccine

The global race for a Covid-19 vaccine appears to be in its final leg. The research was publicly funded. But Big Pharma stands to make enormous profits, at the expense of people the world over.
  • Mike Pappas and Luigi Morris | 
  • November 23, 2020

As Covid-19 continues to spread across the globe, more than 200 vaccines are being developed worldwide against the virus. Twelve are in phase 3, where they are tested with humans, and six are already approved for early or limited use.

Millions of people are following the development of these vaccines with the hope they will put an end to the pandemic that has killed so many and halted everyone’s lives. Capitalist governments are desperate to develop a vaccine because the sooner a vaccine is ready, the sooner baseline exploitation under capitalism can return.

The “America First” approach was and still is trying to guarantee priority access for the United States, while other nations bid against each other for the vaccine and the equipment necessary to store it, rather than developing a global solution through cooperation. This is not only about the lack of coordination, but also U.S. sanctions against countries such as Iran that continued just when they were hit hard by the pandemic. This shows us that saving lives is not the driver behind all these efforts.

In Stage 3

Other nations rushed into this race. The Chinese pharmaceutical company CanSino Biologics has a vaccine candidate that is in phase 3, but already has limited use among the Chinese military and is in late-stage trials in Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Russia. The same is true of Sinovac Biotech’s vaccine, which is being used with high-risk workers in China and is undergoing phase 3 trials in Indonesia, Turkey, and Brazil, where they resumed after a controversial case. The state-owned Chinese company Sinopharm has been using two different inactivated virus vaccines on a limited basis in the United Arab Emirates, and is doing trials in other countries.

The Russian state-run Gamaleya Research Institute’s Sputnik V, which demonstrated 92% efficacy, is another vaccine already being used. The announcement came two days after the U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer and German drugmaker BioNTech released their late phase 3 results showing 90 percent effectiveness, updated to 95 percent on November 18.

Most recently, the U.S. pharmaceutical company Moderna showed preliminary data that its vaccine could be 94.5 percent effective. The company’s vaccine has a significant advantage over Pfizer’s, which requires storage at -70 degrees Celsius and hence has significant barriers to distribution. Moderna claims its vaccine can be stored at a more manageable -20 degrees Celsius and explained that once doses are defrosted they can last longer in a refrigerator than initially estimated: up to 30 days, which would facilitate distribution logistics. These two vaccines could be close to receiving emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration. Pfizer has already submitted its EUA application.

The vaccines mentioned so far are the ones that have reached later stages of development. Other big pharmaceutical companies in Phase 2 or Phase 3 are: Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Novavax, Canada’s Medicago, and India’s Bharat Biotech. AstraZeneca announced today that they are getting results around 90 percent effectiveness and said that their vaccine won’t need to be stored at subzero temperatures.

While individual companies across the world scramble to develop a vaccine, one would think these companies and governments would be able to come together to stem the spread of a virus that threatens us all. Instead, what we see is all of these social efforts, investments, and experiments done in an uncoordinated and uncollaborative manner. For these large companies, what matters first and foremost is the value of their shares. So it is important for them to show that they are “first” with a vaccine — even before having robust results. The premature release of “positive” data also means many governments will run to buy a vaccine without guarantees of its safety or efficacy.

The race among private pharmaceutical corporations for larger portions of the market also furthers the well-founded distrust among the general public and healthcare workers of vaccines that are being rushed because of competition. Healthcare workers are considered high risk and will be among the first to receive the novel vaccines under emergency approvals, but many doctors and nurses want more data before being exposed. The capitalists are reluctant to go into new lockdowns and even less likely to provide safety measures that will reduce the number of cases. Rather than forego profits, they prefer to expose hundreds of millions to vaccines that haven’t been fully tested.

From Public Funding to Private Millionaires

This race is not only about corporate profits but also the geopolitical benefits that come with being the first country to create a vaccine. It is no surprise that the same countries that dominate the world geopolitically — the United States, Germany, Russia, the U.K., and China — are the main countries in the current vaccine race. In these countries, as in most others, scientific research receives state funding, but the resulting profits end up in private hands. For example, the Bayh-Dole Act allows U.S. universities to sell patents on discoveries funded by tax dollars.

A closer look at the United States reveals the vast amount of resources governments are putting into this vaccine race. Operation Warp Speed (OWS), a Trump administration initiative, already reached an agreement with Moderna, and on August 11, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “announced up to $1.5 billion in funds to support the large-scale manufacturing and delivery of Moderna’s investigational vaccine candidate” in exchange for 100 million doses. That came on top of earlier support to the tune of $483 million and $472 million.

Among the main investments of OWS, there was “approximately $1 billion in funds to support the large-scale manufacturing and delivery of Johnson & Johnson’s (Janssen)” — added on August 5 to a previous $456 million. On May 21, HHS announced “up to $1.2 billion in support for AstraZeneca’s candidate vaccine, developed in conjunction with the University of Oxford.” On July 7, HHS announced $1.6 billion in funds to support Novavax. And on July 31, $2 billion were announced for Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK) investigational adjuvanted vaccine. This $10 billion budget for OWS alone was approved by Congress.

Pfizer received no OWS funds. The government reached an agreement to buy 100 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine if it wins approval, which would be enough to guarantee the two doses needed for 50 million people. The agreement also included an option to buy an additional 500 million doses. In President Trump’s November 13 update on OWS, he voiced frustration about the company’s statements that it had not been part of OWS. “Pfizer said it wasn’t part of Warp Speed, but that turned out to be an unfortunate misrepresentation. They are part. That’s why we gave them the $1.95 million — billion. And it was an unfortunate mistake that they made when they said that.” It is clear that President Trump, like other world leaders, is thirsty for recognition that his government was part of vaccine development.

Not a Global Vaccine

The Covid-19 pandemic, which has already caused at least 1.33 million deaths around the world, means massive profits for big pharma. These companies have raked in public funding and increased their share prices, and now will add to that through deals with countries that will have to pay millions of dollars for access to the vaccine.

As groups such as the London-based Global Justice Now have already pointed out, a majority of the vaccine doses that could be available in the near future have already been claimed by wealthy countries. For example, 780 million doses — or 78 percent of the doses Moderna claims it can produce by next year — have already been sold to the world’s wealthiest governments. The vaccine race has amplified the dynamics of imperialism that already exist on a global scale, leaving most of the world to scramble for whatever is left when the great powers are done.

The challenge won’t only be purchasing vaccines but also handling the expensive distribution requirements, including access to freezers and dry ice. Dr. Germán Malaga, who is working on Peru’s response to the pandemic, told CNN that there are about 30 ultra-cold freezers in Lima to handle the Pfizer vaccine, but that “for the other 20 million Peruvians, including in the Andes and the rainforest, there are none.” India and South Africa submitted a request to the WHO to “guarantee a waiver from certain provisions of the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement for the prevention, containment and treatment of Covid-19.” In other words, the manufacture of vaccines will be held back by patents.

Governments running to buy vaccines, or “calling dibs” on future doses, shows the capitalists’ desperation to get people back to work. Many countries have been unable to control viral spread because the dynamics of capitalism will not — indeed, cannot — allow for a proper slow down or shut down while also supporting the great mass of people. Instead, leaders are increasingly desperate for a vaccine to get people back to work. This means that they will begin buying vaccines and pushing them on populations before they even truly know whether they will work or are safe.

Countries such as South Korea that have controlled the spread of the virus more effectively have decided not to rush into the market for vaccines. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Health officials are worried that the fast-tracked vaccines might not be effective or could carry long-term side effects.”

Against Big Pharma

The capitalists are touting vaccine development as an example of the merits of innovation. In reality, though, the global vaccine race has exposed the falsehood of some of the most closely held beliefs of the capitalist elite. These include the idea that capitalism “raises all boats” and “stimulates innovation.” As we have seen, rather than coordinating and sharing the results of scientific research, each multinational company is working on its own, in complete secrecy. Companies are wasting resources on duplicate research and taking much longer to find a vaccine. Imagine if the world’s great scientific minds all collaborated to develop the best possible vaccine in the shortest possible time. It is not hyperbole to say we would likely already have a vaccine saving lives.

So much of the preliminary research for new biotechnologies is funded by tax dollars and then turned over to private companies. These companies then charge the public exorbitantly, limiting availability and access in order to ensure the largest profits. Medicines should be made for the public good, not patented by private companies. As the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen noted,

Moderna is taking taxpayers for a ride – and the Trump administration is doing nothing about it. Taxpayers are paying for 100% of Modern’s Covid-19 vaccine development. All of it. Yet taxpayers may wind up paying tens of billions more to Moderna to buy our vaccine back, if it proves safe and effective. The so-called Moderna vaccine belongs in significant part to the people of the U.S. We paid for it. Federal scientists led the way. It ought to be the people’s vaccine, not a new taxpayer burden.

All medicines, vaccines, and beneficial therapies should belong to the people. This is not an original or revolutionary idea. After developing the vaccine for polio in 1955, Jonas Salk was asked by CBS newsman Edward R. Morrow who owned the patent. Salk said “Well, the people, I would say … There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

We must move beyond a culture in which medicine and science are used to extract profit from the public body and toward one in which they serve the public good. We should not forget how we got here: pharmaceutical corporations and the state invest more in remedies than in preventing diseases. As we know, it is always more profitable to sell the vaccine. Capitalism refuses to change the root causes of diseases like Covid-19.

As Left Voice states in the program published last month, we need a healthcare system that puts people over profits:

A healthcare system dominated by corporations produces the inevitable outcome: big profits for pharmaceuticals and other health-related industries, while healthcare workers face unsafe working conditions and millions of people remain uninsured. Other so-called essential workers have been forced to work without the necessary protective equipment. Unsafe school reopenings, imposed at the state and federal level to get parents back to work, have put teachers, staff, students, and communities at risk and are contributing to rising numbers of Covid-19 cases across the country.

Having a vaccine would be a huge step forward, but we cannot trust these companies or the current distribution plans. An mRNA vaccine needs to be refrigerated at around -70 degrees Celsius, which would require special freezers for transportation and storage. Capitalism has already shown itself unable to produce enough masks for healthcare workers, so how can we expect this system to be able to produce and distribute enough high-tech freezers to store the vaccine — assuming it even proves to be safe and effective? Wouldn’t mass production of these freezers suffer the same fate as ventilator production during the first wave of the pandemic? Covid-19 has exposed the racist and class faultlines upon which our economic system is based. How can we trust that those who are most vulnerable to Covid-19 will be able to access the vaccine?

We need to eliminate competition and unite research and development efforts across borders. It is imperative to produce a generic, safe, and effective vaccine available for every country immediately at no cost. We need to nationalize the healthcare system and all vaccine-related industries under workers’ control.

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Mike Pappas

Mike Pappas

Mike is an activist and medical doctor working in New York City.
Luigi Morris

Luigi Morris

Luigi is a freelance photographer, socialist journalist and videographer. He is an activist for immigrants' rights.

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