Vaccine nationalism and profiteering: How capitalism captured a pandemic

Capitalist pharmaceutical companies like Moderna and Pfizer are set to make incredible amounts of money from the COVID-19 vaccine. Image: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Over the past two and a half years, those of us living on the southern tip of the African continent have had front-row seats to the often absurd and mostly sordid theatre played out at the Zondo State Capture Commission into corruption.

We have watched and listened to story after story of corruption, mismanagement, dishonesty, greed and self-centredness, of how a small minority of the politically connected and powerful systematically went about capturing the South African state.

As if to rub salt into the gaping wounds inflicted by this sorry saga, along came the COVID-19 pandemic just over a year ago. Despite a few initially positive moves by some states to confront it, both in South Africa and other countries, it was not long before the same combination of systemic, State Capture “behaviour” once again rose to the surface. Nowhere has this been more acutely applied and felt than in relation to the development, procurement and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

Right from the start it became clear that the agreements and plans for the development of vaccines, which mostly emanated from wealthy, developed countries (including Russia and China), were going to be moulded by a dominant nationalist logic (“we will take care of ourselves first”), would privilege a capitalist, profit-generating and market-based approach, and be shrouded in secrecy. 

Using billions in public funds, governments poured money into research and development projects run mostly by private/corporate pharmaceutical outfits. Even before it was known which vaccines would/would not be effective or what the final costs would be, bilateral deals were cut for billions of doses.

At the same time, the World Health Organization (WHO) initiated a global, public-private vaccine collaboration, the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), which is designed to ensure equitable access to vaccines across the globe. The whole idea is that through funding cross-subsidisation from richer nations and a collectively planned equitable distribution, all 190 nations enrolled would obtain sufficient and affordable vaccines.

However, instead of prioritising such a collective and redistributional approach to vaccines through COVAX (even with its potential weaknesses and problems), a mad nationalistic rush for vaccines has taken over. Almost 13 billion doses of various vaccines were bought in the past several months, mostly through bilateral deals between specific nations and private pharmaceutical corporations, with a few between states. This is more than enough to vaccinate every single adult person in the world.

The nationalist greed is astounding, with countries like Canada having bought five times more vaccines than needed and others, like the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union, purchasing more than twice what they need. The result: only 16% of the global population currently hold 60% of the vaccines.

Meanwhile, in order to fill the gap left by wholly inadequate COVAX supplies, most low- and middle-income countries have been forced to try to make deals directly with pharmaceutical corporations, or in the case of Russia and China, with their state-owned outfits.

So far, poorer countries, which make up 84% of the global population, have only been able to secure around 32% of the world’s vaccine supply. 

Because the necessary funding for COVAX from the richer nations has not been forthcoming, poorer nations are now being further forced to turn to the World Bank, private banks and capitalist markets to source funds; funds that they will be responsible for paying back in one form or another.

As Solomon Dersso, chairperson of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, has rightfully concluded, this is all the result of “a market-based approach to the production of and access to the vaccine, from which the pharmaceutical industry and those dominating the existing global economic system benefit the most”.

But it gets worse. Through the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the World Trade Organization (WTO) maintains control over various intellectual property (IP) rights, such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information. All of these IP rights impact negatively on the availability, accessibility and affordability of COVID-19 vaccines.

As such, India and South Africa (backed by 99 other countries, mostly in the Global South) have recently proposed that the WTO temporarily waive parts of TRIPS that cover IP rights related to COVID-19 vaccines, so that there can be “timely access to affordable medical products including vaccines and medicines … essential to combat COVID-19”. 

And what has been the response of the richer nations? To vigorously oppose it, claiming this would stifle innovation, compromise security and disincentivise research and development at pharmaceutical companies.

While there will be more upcoming discussions at the WTO, it is doubtful things will change. Unlike Jonas Salk (the developer of the polio vaccine) who, when asked who owned the patent replied, “the people”, the small minority of political and economic elites from richer nations have clearly decided that the interests and profits of private corporations and/or state entities are more important than the health and indeed lives of billions of poorer citizens of the world.

Sure enough, capitalist pharmaceutical companies like Moderna and Pfizer are set to make incredible amounts of money.  Moderna is projected to earn around US$10 billion (R150 billion) from its vaccine during 2021 while Pfizer is expected to rake in an astounding US$19 billion (R275 billion) by the end of the year.

All told, it is estimated that global COVID-19 vaccine sales could top US$100 billion (R1.5 trillion), of which close to 50% will be profit for a handful of capitalist and state companies. Compare those numbers to the WHO’s estimation that an investment of US$38 billion (R550 billion) would suffice to fully fund global vaccine access and would be paid back “in less than 36 hours once global mobility and trade alone are restored”.

Due to IP rights, national security veils and the general secrecy surrounding the costing and pricing structures of COVID-19 vaccines, it is virtually impossible for ordinary people — who, through taxes and other means have funded and continue to fund the lion’s share of vaccine research, purchase and distribution — to hold anyone to account. 

Like the Wall Street hedge fund managers prior to the 2008 crash, the private and state vaccine pharmaceutical companies (along with their political protectors/shareholders) are in the process of gorging themselves at the capitalists-only feast prepared for them. As usual, the gorgers will never pay for the bill. Meanwhile, the vast majority of humanity will be left to scramble for whatever small crumbs remain.

The more immediate and longer-term practical consequences of vaccine nationalism and profiteering for that majority can be sourced to the cold, perverted and ultimately inhumane logic of contemporary capitalism. That logic — which is not specific to the West — only pays attention to the livelihoods and lives of the workers and poor (and increasingly also, to the shrinking middle class) to the extent that they serve the profit motive and keep intact the political and economic elites’ hold over national and global power.

When applied to the global COVID-19 pandemic, one of the main practical impacts will continue to be unequal access to vaccines. In turn, this will mean a greater suffering and loss of life in under-vaccinated countries, greatly reduced global population immunity and an intensification of associated and ongoing social and economic problems; all of which, of course, will hit the poor and vulnerable the hardest.

If South Africa has learnt one lesson from its national State Capture journey over these past years, it must surely be that to have any real chance of stopping the capture, the country’s deep, structural and systemic social and economic crises have to be consciously recognised and then collectively confronted and addressed. The same applies, at both a national and global level, to the capturing of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let the recapturing struggle take flight.

[This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick. Dale McKinley is a long-time political activist, researcher-writer and lecturer and has been involved in social movement, community and political struggles in South and Southern Africa for more than three decades.]

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