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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.