Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine shambles a symptom of neoliberalism

Australia helped to block countries, such as Papua New Guinea, from manufacturing vaccines, to protect the profits of Big Pharma. Photo: Australian High Commission Papua New Guinea / Facebook

If Australia had a publicly-owned vaccine infrastructure, and a truly functional public healthcare system, the vaccine rollout would arguably have been efficient and transparent.

COVID-19 has highlighted how unequal the globe is. It has also exposed the fractures and contradictions existing within wealthy capitalist countries, including Australia.

Throughout the pandemic, the government’s neoliberal privatisation agenda has come up against medical science and the community’s health needs. The messy vaccine rollout is a symptom of this.

Australia has not developed and produced its own vaccines, which means we have been made beholden to the federal government’s contractual agreements with Big Pharma.

Moreover, as health care becomes increasingly privatised, the state’s ability to engage in large-scale health care interventions, such as a vaccine rollout, is increasingly compromised.

The federal government’s decision to bypass state governments and rely on general practitioners and pharmacies to administer the vaccine is a politically-motivated attempt to curry favour with the health sector and communities. It also allows Prime Minister Scott Morrison to take the credit for a successful rollout.

Morrison’s decision to stall the rollout — despite his hubristic promises of early vaccinations for Australians — has been the target of satire and rightly so.

Even before stopping the AstraZeneca vaccines for people under 50 years old, due to concerns with rare blood clots (a serious set-back), the rollout was at least 85% behind schedule.

Since then, Morrison has been evasive about new targets, saying it is “not possible to set such targets given the many uncertainties involved”.

The flurry of bureaucratic mismanagement and antagonism between the state and federal governments has grown as the problems with vaccine supply and poor communication with states and health officials about deliveries deepen.

Workers and residents in aged care have been especially let down. Less than 10% of aged-care staff — the priority sector — have received the vaccine. This is due to last-minute vaccine cancellations, vaccine “providers” failing to meet scheduled appointments and private logistics companies failing to deliver vaccines. The federal government signed contracts with logistics and supply chain behemoths DHL and Linfox last December to distribute the vaccines.

Big Pharma

Australia is not the only advanced capitalist country to run into problems. Britian’s relatively fast vaccine rollout has stumbled too, after its dismal and dangerous initial COVID-19 response. By contrast, the European Union blamed AstraZeneca for its slow vaccination delivery.

Worryingly, it seems that differences in the speed of delivery comes down to a government’s ability to negotiate with Big Pharma. British health secretary Matt Hancock cynically boasted that Britain secured a better contract with vaccine manufacturers than the EU did.

Australia would be in a better position to deal with the pandemic if it had not sold off its public vaccine-making facility in 1994. Instead, the government has to enter into “COVID-19 bargaining”, in the form of contractual agreements with big pharmaceutical businesses, including the now privately-owned CSL.

It now pays millions of taxpayer dollars for products that CSL once produced for a fraction of the price. The now-private CSL is behind schedule with its manufacture of AstraZeneca doses. Even the needles and other paraphernalia needed for mass vaccinations are contracted out.

United States medical device company Becton Dickinson has been awarded a $24.7 million contract to deliver 100 million needles and syringes to Australia.

We now know that Morrison was informed in January that AstraZeneca could only deliver half of its promised vaccines by April, due to the EU’s decision to block vaccine exports due to new surges in European COVID cases. Yet, he failed to disclose this to the public.

The government knew in February that serious issues between the EU and Oxford-AstraZeneca would undermine Australia’s vaccine contract. Yet, health minister Greg Hunt stayed silent.

Morrison subsequently blamed the EU for blocking shipments, saying Australia only received 700,000 of its promised 3.8 million doses. However, the EU denied it was at fault, saying only one shipment of 250,000 doses was blocked.

Despite the delays, the government has now secured enough doses to fully vaccinate Australians at least three times over.

A war of words led to the federal government accusing the EU of “vaccine nationalism”. It is hardly credible for Australia to take the moral high ground.

Australia was one of 10 countries that blocked a vaccine patent waiver, preventing neighbouring countries such as Papua New Guinea from manufacturing vaccines.

The hypocrisy does not end there. The government is now portraying itself as a good neighbour by committing to send 10,000 locally-manufactured AstraZeneca doses to PNG. It has also promised to send vaccines to other Pacific Island nations.

This “charity” role helps Australia reinforce its power in the region while, at the same time, it works to undermine nations’ ability to stand on their own feet.

Médecins Sans Frontières said Australia is hoarding the vaccine. It pointed out that PNG could already have procured COVID-19 vaccines if Australia, among others, had not blocked the patent waiver.

Trade minister Dan Tehan’s argument against the waiver highlighted just who the government is most concerned with. “Obviously, we’ve got to make sure that there are some protections in place for the millions of dollars that has gone into the research to create these vaccines,” he told ABC Radio on March 10.

Intellectual property

The Asia and the Pacific Policy Society wants Australia to support PNG and has described other countries’ blocking the waiver as inhumane.

It noted that the government’s “primary concerns are that intellectual property rights provide financial incentives for pharmaceutical companies to produce innovative products, and without that incentive, they argue, we would not get the medicines we need”.

University of Ottawa epidemiologist Ronald Labonte agreed. In a recent interview, he said: “What it really comes down to is that they don’t want to touch the intellectual property rights regime of the TRIPS [Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights] agreement, which is so profitable to the patent-holding pharmaceutical industry.

“Intellectual property it’s seen as one of the engines of the new kind of post-industrial economic growth. So we want our patent-holding companies to become profitable, to become rich because if they’re rich, then, supposedly, our countries become rich. So there’s a kind of a mercantilism going on here.”

The ugly truth is that Australia is, again, ensuring that it controls access to and the production of vaccines. However, this does not mean that Australia has prioritised its own vaccine development. On the contrary, successive governments have cut funding to research and development.

Former Liberal PM Tony Abbott made drastic cuts to CSIRO’s funding in 2013 and, to add insult to injury, his 2013 cabinet did not even include a minister for science. He also gutted climate research bodies.

Research and development fund cut

Since then, scientists have lobbied successive governments for research and development funds for vaccines and drugs.

A 2017 report, Medical Countermeasures Initiatives, prepared by the Defence Department, warned of the “urgent” need to “establish a national medical infrastructure” that could “produce medical interventions such as vaccines, and therapeutic and diagnostic technologies which can protect people against emerging infectious diseases, pandemics, as well as chemical, biological, and radiological threats”.

The report’s lead author Dr Craig Rayner warned that the country’s infrastructure would not cope in the case of a pandemic.

So, why wasn’t this report and its warnings heeded at all?

The pandemic has prompted the government to ameliorate its lack of science funding, with more funds allocated in last year’s budget.

However, scientists and academics say more needs to be done, especially in the area of climate science.

Lesley Hughes, professor of biology at Macquarie University and a member of the Climate Council, said the pandemic has meant the government is now willing to fund vaccines (with caveats), but not climate scientists.

Australian vaccine scientists also report that they been left in the lurch by the government in favour of Big Pharma.

Flinders University medical professor Nikolai Petrovsky said that his team’s research into their COVAX-19 vaccine, made with protein produced in insect cells, was hamstrung by the lack of funding. “We’ve never really got an answer as to why we’re not getting supported better from the federal Health Department,” he said.

Petrovsky hoped that funding would be forthcoming after the clinical trials of another vaccines developed by the University of Queensland in collaboration with CSL were halted after trial participants returned false positive HIV test results. But this did not happen.

It is only now, after the problems with the AstraZeneca vaccine, that the government has announced its strong support for onshore mRNA manufacturing. For months scientists have campaigned for mRNA to be developed.

Such vaccines, including Pfizer’s, are deemed to be a more a reliable vaccine. AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson use a different technology, based on adenovirus, and have been linked to fatal blood clots.

Meanwhile, the Victorian government has just announced $50 million to fund mRNA COVID-19 vaccine production at the University of Melbourne’s Doherty Institute. The federal government has already committed $1.6 million.

Lead researcher Terry Nolan echoed other scientists in urging greater vaccine self-sufficiency. “Australia cannot rely on overseas vaccines remaining effective and needs a “backup”, he said. mRNA vaccines have the capability of being modified to combat virus variants, whereas other types of vaccines do not.

Cuba sets the lead

Cuba’s vaccine and health infrastructure stands in stark contrast to those of the rich capitalist countries.

Despite the US blockade, Cuba has a highly advanced bio-technology sector, with extensive experience in infectious diseases. Moreover, the health system is built on a people-first model, in which physicians work closely with individuals and communities and focus on preventative care.

Cuba now has five vaccine candidates, two of which are now in phase three trials: Soberana 02 and Abdala. Three other vaccine candidates are in earlier stage trials: Soberana 01, Soberana Plus and Mambisa. There is also a vaccine being developed specifically for children.

Helen Yaffe from the University of Glasgow explained in March that due to the harsh sanctions, Cuba was forced to become self-reliant to provide health care. Yaffe said that “without this domestic production, Cuba would struggle to access foreign vaccines either because of their cost in international markets or because of the longstanding US embargo”.

“Cuba’s biotech sector is unique. It is entirely state-owned and free of private interests, with innovation channelled to meet public health needs and no profit-seeking in the domestic market.

“Dozens of research and development institutions collaborate, sharing resources and knowledge instead of competing, which facilitates a fast track from research and innovation to trials and application. Cuba has the capacity to produce 60–70% of the medicines it consumes domestically, an imperative due to the US blockade and the cost of medicines in the international market.

“There is also continuous and comprehensive circulation of information and personnel between universities, research centres, and the public health system. These various elements have proven vital in the development of Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccine.”

If the trials are successful, Cuba’s vaccination program will begin mid-2021. Given Cuba’s excellent record in vaccinating its population against other diseases, we can only expect that the rollout will be successful.

Unlike Australia, Cuba has not engaged in vaccine nationalism. On the contrary, it has taken an international approach of solidarity, committing to not only export its vaccines to other countries, such as Iran and Venezuela, but also support technology transfer with these countries.

In contradistinction to widespread Sinophobia in the West, Cuba is also collaborating with Chinese researchers to develop another vaccine, called Pan-Corona, intended to be effective against different strains of COVID-19.

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