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Vaccine nationalism: capitalism’s limits exposed

As capitalist governments continue to attempt to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, demand for a vaccine is outstripping the supply.

This isn’t helped by the overstocking of vaccines by advanced capitalist countries. Last week the UK government announced it was purchasing an extra 40 million doses of the Valneva vaccine, bringing the total number of vaccines purchased to well over 400 million, enough to vaccinate everyone in the UK three times.

Meanwhile the African Union has only been able to secure 270 million doses, for the whole of Africa (with a population of 1.3 billion people) – barely enough to vaccinate 10% of the continent’s population. These will only be available from April, five months after the first vaccinations started in the West.

In 2020 the head of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, said that, “vaccine nationalism will prolong the pandemic, not shorten it,” and warned of a “protected economic recovery” unless the vaccine is equitably distributed.

As richer countries stockpile the vaccine, vulnerable people and healthcare workers in the neocolonial world will be left unvaccinated; continuing the pandemic, causing further unnecessary death and suffering, and creating a petri dish for further variants – potentially vaccine resistant – to develop.

But these tensions exist within the West too. The recent diplomatic conflict between the EU and the UK surrounding the AstraZeneca vaccine shows this. AstraZeneca suggested it would not be able to deliver tens of millions of promised vaccines to the EU due to ‘manufacturing problems’.

The EU introduced export controls on doses produced in the EU preventing distribution to non-member states. They also threatened to trigger Article 16 – which would override the Northern Ireland protocol agreed in the Brexit trade deal just five weeks previous – to prevent doses from travelling into the UK via Northern Ireland (effectively meaning introducing a border between the north and the south of Ireland). 

This was widely condemned and the EU was forced into a humiliating climbdown, but this use of the article has now set a precedent and inflamed the situation in Ireland. The DUP and other unionist organisations have used this, alongside the violence in the port of Larne, to press for abolishing the Northern Ireland protocol, which introduced an administrative border between Britain and Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson has indicated the UK’s willingness to invoke Article 16 in response to this.

This article was initially created as an emergency procedure to prevent serious economic consequences of Brexit, but it is now being used as a way for both the UK and EU to throw out the deal whenever it becomes convenient. The Northern Ireland protocol already represents a temperamental compromise, and this use of Article 16 has highlighted the inability of the capitalist class to contain sectarianism and national divisions. 

Capitalism is fundamentally incapable of resolving national oppression and its consequences. This is likely to be the beginning of further tensions between the EU and UK, not just regarding Northern Ireland, but the Brexit deal as a whole.

The development of a Covid-19 vaccine in record time has given just a glimpse of what human beings are capable of when given sufficient resources and decent funding. The only reason the necessary research has been able to take place is due to unprecedented levels of public financing to all major companies. But whilst private companies weren’t prepared to put their own money into this research, they will be reaping the rewards.

The Financial Times estimates that Pfizer is expecting $15 billion in revenue in 2021 thanks to it’s Covid-19 vaccine. AstraZeneca has pledged not to profit from its vaccine, but only “during the pandemic,” and it is plotting in private to declare the pandemic over as soon as possible. Documents between AstraZeneca and Fiocruz, a Brazilian manufacturer, declares the pandemic period to end on 1 July 2021, after which it will be free to up its prices and begin to profit from this crisis.

A number of poorer countries are proposing to the World Trade Organisation that it waives patent rights for Covid-19 vaccines to enable affordable production and universal access to the vaccine. This is being strongly lobbied against by pharmaceutical companies – supported by the UK, US and EU.

This has echoes of how the HIV/AIDS pandemic was dealt with. Once lifesaving drugs were discovered, pharmaceutical companies – in an attempt to maximise their profits – continued to try to sell these at high prices to poorer countries hit hard by the pandemic. They were supported in doing this by advanced capitalist countries, and were only forced into ending this practice through mass action during the anti-globalisation protests in the late 1990s.

The development of the vaccines has highlighted the problems inherent in a capitalist system, driven solely by the profit motive. A total of 236 vaccines are in various stages of production, nearly all identical to others being produced. Both Moderna and Pfizer spent time, money and resources creating nearly identical vaccines using this new mRNA method. The shareholders of both companies want their payouts, so it makes sense for them both to compete to develop these vaccines to make as much money as quickly as possible. But does it make sense to humanity to duplicate these processes?

Capitalism, with its short-term focus on profits, has no real plan for dealing with this crisis, and is completely incapable of taking the planned international action needed to end this pandemic.

A socialist society, with a real plan for solving the Covid crisis, would bring these big pharmaceutical companies into democratic public ownership, and share their technology and patents to allow sufficient doses to be produced. It would solve the problems of production by retooling factories to mass produce doses, and would distribute them by bringing under democratic control the massive supply chains of companies like Amazon, and use them for public good, not Jeff Bezos’ profit. 

It would ensure that these doses were allocated internationally so that the world’s most vulnerable could be protected.

A socialist transformation of society is the only way for humanity to ensure internationally that public health is put before private wealth.

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