Fight the Pandemic Profiteers – Nationalise Big Pharma!

Millions of people around the world are jubilant that a COVID-19 vaccine might soon be available.

Bourgeois governments, prioritising capitalist profits over human lives, have utterly failed to contain this pandemic. The masses have no faith in politicians, and are pinning their hopes on a cure. But there is no cure for the sickness of the capitalist system, which will seek to profit from this breakthrough, to humanity’s detriment.

Uncertainty

Coronavirus Vaccine

The ruling class is eager for a working vaccine: not because it cares about people suffering, but because it wants to return to ‘normal’ economic activity. Thus, huge sums of public money have been invested in a variety of candidate drugs.

Two of these – one manufactured by Boston-based firm Moderna, and the other by US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in collaboration with its German partner BioNTech – have produced interim results suggesting they are between 90 and 95 percent effective.

While these are encouraging figures, clinical trials are still not complete. On top of this, there is a process of submitting approvals before the vaccine can start being manufactured and distributed.

The timescale for a general rollout is not yet clear. The Tory government, for example, is stating that ‘key workers’ will be given priority. This does not include teachers, who are risking infection in crowded classrooms).

The rapid turnaround has also caused understandable concerns about safety, which might also hamper mass vaccination. The fault for this lies squarely with bourgeois governments, whose contradictory messaging and bungling of the crisis have undermined public trust.

Capitalist interests

Nevertheless, the optimism of the capitalist class was immediately reflected by a bounce on the stock market, with the FTSE 100 surging nearly 5 percent.

These desperately-needed vaccines represent a bonanza for the pharmaceutical capitalists and their shareholders. This includes, Tory Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose former hedge fund Theleme Partners has invested heavily in Moderna. This goes to show how the rotten bourgeois state is bound to capitalist interests by a thousand threads.

Meanwhile, the race for a vaccine has been cynically exploited as part of a geopolitical tug-of-war between bourgeois governments. The big imperialist powers are all vying for their capitalists to cross the line first, secure patents, and outcompete their rivals on the world stage.

Nevertheless, with COVID-19 cases skyrocketing around the world, these developments are a pinprick of light at the end of a dark tunnel for billions of workers struggling under the pandemic, and the economic turmoil it has provoked. But we should be under no illusions about the motives of the Big Pharma racket.

Pfizer and BioNTech stand to make $13bn (£9.8bn) from sales of their vaccine. The USA has ordered 100 million doses; the EU 200 million; and the UK 40 million.

Moderna has stated that it could manufacture anywhere between 500 million and one billion doses in 2021. This would generate between $14bn (£10.5bn) and $29bn (£22 bn) in profits for the company and its owners.

State support

Despite the private sector making a killing, all the vaccines undergoing stage three testing are reliant on public sector research and/or funding. Moderna, for example, was bankrolled by the Trump administration’s ‘Operation Warp Speed Initiative’.

Despite Pfizer claiming it has “never taken any money” from the state, the product it has created with BioNTech is based on technology developed by the US and German governments.

Russia’s Gam-Covid-Vac was developed by the Ministry of Health; and China’s stage three vaccines came from the Beijing Institute of Biological Products and the heavily-state-managed Sinovac company.

Far from driving innovation, the private medical sector merely leeches off the state, then pockets the rewards. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla (who personally sold his stock of shares to the tune of $5.6m) dismissed the “radical” idea that companies should not expect to profit from a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Who is finding the solution? The private sector,” Bourla said. Another corporate spokesperson added: “From the beginning we have been investing at risk,” because Pfizer will only be paid for delivering a working vaccine.

But it is the workers who are risking their lives and livelihoods in the face of this deadly pandemic. Meanwhile, these fat-cats seek to enrich themselves using research and resources the public funded in the first place!

Property and profits

Prescription Drugs

In effect, Big Pharma expects ordinary people to pay for these vaccines twice. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be available in the US for $39 for a two-shot course, while Moderna’s will be $50.

Prices for countries other than the US are likely to vary as supply contracts are still being negotiated. But Moderna is already projecting a range of between $32 and $37 per dose. This fee will have to be covered by individuals, or otherwise swallowed by already overburdened public health services.

We have heard time and again that “we are all in this together”. But for the working class and poor, this is a sick joke.

This injustice is even starker in the so-called developing world. The richest countries have already bought up the lion’s share of doses of the leading candidate drugs. And there is little prospect of Big Pharma making its products available at manageable prices in poor countries. This would not be a profitable move.

Attempts by the governments of India and South Africa to prevent pharmaceutical companies from enforcing intellectual property rights until global immunity is reached were stonewalled by the Big Pharma lobby.

As Oxfam points out, regardless of promising clinical trial results, the vaccine will be “zero percent effective” for millions of people who will be priced out of its use.

Rollout

Another, neglected aspect of these vaccine announcements is the expensive question of their administration and storage once manufactured. It has been estimated that rolling out Pfizer’s vaccine in the UK, for example, would cost $2bn and take months. And this is assuming retired health workers are brought back in to help.

The early months of the pandemic revealed just how under-equipped healthcare systems are for a crisis like this, having been ravaged by austerity for decades.

The situation is far worse in less-developed countries. Nigeria, for example, has only 40,000 doctors compared to a population of nearly 200 million. How is a country with per capita healthcare expenditure of $74 (compared to £3,000 in the UK) supposed to pay for a mass vaccination programme? Or procure the expensive specialised freezers for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which needs to be stored at -75°C?

This requirement has also caused a headache in Britain, where disastrous Brexit negotiations raise the prospect of long queues of goods trucks at the border, in which these doses will somehow have to be maintained at super-low temperatures.

capitalism disease

Anarchy of capitalism

All this only serves as a reminder that production under capitalism is anarchic. Even for essential, life-saving goods – like vaccines against a deadly pandemic – the capitalist system produces only on the basis of profit, not out of concern for human life or need.

We say: nationalise the pharmaceutical companies – without compensation and under workers’ control, to guarantee a vaccine is made freely available! For a fully publicly-owned health service, under the control and management of healthcare workers themselves!

Ultimately, only a socialist planned economy on an international scale can guarantee that everyone can benefit from the advances of medical science, which must be freed from the stranglehold of profit.

by Dora Dimitrova and Joe Attard, Socialist Appeal

Unison General Secretary election: Decision time

Ballot papers are being delivered for the Unison general secretary election. This vote is probably the most important election in the trade union movement for decades. At stake is the future direction of the biggest union in the country – and perhaps most importantly, the key union in the NHS and local government.

For many years, the Unison leadership have sought to solve the problems that members face through a strategy of conciliation with the Tories. The problem with that strategy, however, is that it has led to a continuous erosion of terms and conditions, privatisation, wage freezes, job losses and a decimation of services.

Unison has an enormous potential weight, both industrially and politically. And it plays a decisive role in the public sector.

The union’s members have been fighting a rearguard action for more than ten years now. There have been important local struggles – most recently with the Tower Hamlets dispute. But too often, branches have been left to their own devices.

The practice of the leadership has consistently been to sell the members short.

No more ‘business as usual’

Uniosn tower hamlets

Unison organises hundreds of thousands of members in offices, schools, care homes, hospitals, and council depots. Many of these workers – including an army of homecare workers who support the most vulnerable people in society – are still at work. Unison members have faced the brunt of the pandemic, and have received huge public support for doing so.

Public support for the NHS and for other frontline workers has never been higher. Meanwhile, the Tories have seldom been weaker. They are seen as arrogant, incompetent, and uncaring.

Unison members now face an important choice. Do we continue to try and present a ‘dented shield’, despite so much evidence that this strategy does not work? Or do we fight for a trade union that will stand up for our members, listen to our concerns, and act upon them?

There have probably never been so many threats looming: NHS privatisation; austerity; and the risks in schools, where reckless Tory policy is forcing children, teachers, and support staff into unsafe conditions.

All these threats will impact dramatically on our members. One thing is for certain: ‘business as usual’ is the last thing we need.

Real change

It has been very noticeable that all of the Unison general secretary candidates accept that the union needs to change. But what sort of change do we need?

Two of the candidates – Christine McAnea and Roger McKenzie – come from the Unison bureaucracy. On the other hand, there are two lay candidates who both say that they will not accept the full wage that goes with the job.

Paul Holmes is an experienced rank-and-file activist, who is a member of the NEC and a local branch secretary.

The fourth candidate is Hugo Pierre, a member of the Socialist Party. He has been strongly criticised for standing on a blatantly sectarian basis, after participating in the Broad Left hustings to select a single left candidate and losing to Paul Holmes.

Members’ candidate

Paul Holmes real change

Socialist Appeal has argued for many years for the democratisation of the Union. In our opinion, Unison gives lip service to being a ‘lay member led union’. In reality, the structures of the union are not open to the active involvement of the majority of the membership.

We have argued that the role of the leadership should be to support the struggles of the branches; to take a lead at a national level in campaigning and uniting the struggles; and to fight for socialist policies in the labour movement.

We have also argued that trade union leaders and MPs should only take the wages of a skilled worker. The Unison general secretary job, however, attracts a salary of £138,000 per year.

We also stand against opportunism and sectarianism, and against any ‘prestige politics’ in the workers movement.

We are confident that our readers will consider the arguments above and in previous articles about the issues in this election, and about the future direction of the union.

On this basis, we hope that Unison members will vote for the only candidate that can deliver genuine change in the union: Paul Holmes – the members’ candidate.

In line with Unison’s campaigning rules, this article has not been authorised by Paul Holmes and represents the opinion of the Socialist Appeal editorial board.

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