World | HEALTH | HR

The pandemic and the spells of capitalism

Black storms stir the air

To such an extent are we possessed—ideologically bewitched—that no state has even considered that the vaccines for combating the coronavirus pandemic should be a common good, and have thus failed to demand that they be treated as such, when it is well-known that the funds that pharmaceutical companies have received to produce them are precisely public funds.

Daniel Gatti

Foto: Gerardo Iglesias

A BBC report released on December 15 based on information from the science data analytics company Airfinity indicates that as of that date governments had invested US$ 8.6 billion in vaccine research and development, and that another US$ 1.9 billion had been invested by nonprofit organizations.

The companies themselves had only invested US$ 3.4 billion, and many of them depended “to a great extent on outside funding.”

A sector that stands to take the biggest cut from this crisis is the large pharmaceutical companies and laboratories.

Is that how it should be? Is it fair? These questions are raised by Netherlands medical activist Ellen ‘t Hoen, head of the Medicines Law and Policies research group. Why did governments not demand something back from the companies they financed using money that ultimately belongs to all their citizens?

No money should have to change hands to demand something that should be a common good, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of World Health Organization (WHO), observed.

Even if most pharmaceutical companies will not immediately make a huge fortune from the marketing itself of the vaccines, they will garner enormous prestige, which will be the basis for large earnings in the future.

To that we must add the intellectual property rights, which companies are for the most part reserving for themselves, despite having shared some of their innovations.

Calling all the shots

Control over who gets access to the innovation and access to the knowledge of how to make them stays in the hands of the company,” Ellen ‘t Cohen said.

Some companies, such as the UK’s AstraZeneca, which works with a biotech company in the University of Cambridge, and the U.S.-based Johnson & Johnson pledged to sell their vaccines “at a price that just covers their costs,” but that is only for the “duration of the pandemic.”

Then, when Covid-19 becomes chronic, and is no longer the pressing drama it is today, AstraZeneca, like all other vaccine manufacturers, will be able to return to the market “as normal” and profit “naturally” with whoever pays the most.

Because that is where one of the key points of the matter lies: how naturally we accept that the cure for an illness should be like any other industry, subject to the “laws of the market.”

States themselves accept it, even those where the largest shreds of the lighter version of capitalism—the social-democratic version—persist.

Risk capital?

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the cracks in a social model founded on the belief that healthcare should yield profits, a belief used to justify increasingly ever more stringent budget cuts for staff and patients,” the monthly magazine Le Monde Diplomatique highlighted in April 2020.

The multimillion-dollar public investments in vaccine development have gone primarily to private companies: AstraZeneca-Oxford, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer, Novavax, Curevac, have all, to a greater or lesser degree, been financed with money injected by governments.

Only when governments and agencies stepped in with funding pledges did [those companies] get to work on it,” the BBC report states.

Until then, they did not see it as a profitable business: they needed to invest a lot of money in a short time to obtain significant profits, which, in addition—they projected, they knew—they would have to share in the medium term with other companies, as these started to gradually join the list of Covid-19 vaccine developers.

But when they began receiving funds and got to work, they started to see results from their research, their stock prices went up, and their shareholders profited.

So much so that Pfizer CEO Albert Boula sold 62 percent of his shares in the company, whose value shot up 15 percent as soon as news broke of the success of its clinical trials, earning him US$ 5.6 million. For their part, Moderna shareholders were pleased to see the price of their stock rise by 50 percent.

Vaccine nationalism

And then there are the other inequalities, which are sometimes mentioned but against which little or nothing is done: the inequalities that determine that 60 percent of vaccines go to the richest countries, which concentrate only 14 percent of the world’s population but can pay more and even negotiate on better terms with the multinational corporations of the medical industry.

AstraZeneca’s flagrant breach of the contract signed with the European Union for the supply of vaccines has led the EU’s 27 members to close ranks in a way that the WHO has called “harmful,” as they have demanded that the doses produced in European soil not be exported until their own needs are covered. The rest be damned.

Vaccine nationalism is moving at full speed,” senior officials of the United Nations have warned, further noting that “it is a very worrying trend.”

Meanwhile, there are countries that are nowhere near starting to vaccinate their populations, and perhaps may not be able to until 2022 or 2023, depending on the doses they can pinch here and there or on when they receive the doses negotiated by the WHO under the Covax mechanism, established for the so-called Third World and which is only just now slowly taking off.

A study published in mid-January by the Ourworldindata website found that, in the beginning of 2021, 142 countries had still not started vaccinating. Only 52 countries had, distributing some 54 million doses among their populations, including the 27 EU nations, the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and China.

The overall figure is very low, but particularly so in certain regions of the world, which expect to see little change in the rate of inoculation within the short term. In Africa, for example, only 7,000 doses had been administered in a total population of more than 1.2 billion people.

Just a moral failure?

And what is obviously absurd and irrational is that if the gap continues to widen, the immunity necessary to control the pandemic will not be achieved, because the world’s poor will continue to spread the virus. As long as they die in their own country, who cares; but as they will continue to circulate and migrate, then perhaps that may give the rich countries pause.

I need to be blunt: the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure—and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

We can go one step further.

Building on the idea of British scientist and editor-in-chief of The Lancet Richard Horton, Spanish philosopher Santiago Alba Rico noted in a recent Rebelión article that what the world is facing is not a pandemic but a syndemic, that is, “a pandemic in which biological, economic, and social factors are intertwined in such a way that they make a partial or specialized solution impossible, let alone magical and final.”

Capitalism is the syndemic, Alba Rico said. “The problem, then, is not the coronavirus. The problem is a ‘syndemic’ capitalism in which it is no longer easy to distinguish between nature and culture, and, therefore, between natural death and artificial death.”

But there seems to be a great global spell that creates a cloak of invisibility. To quote To the Barricades, that battle hymn of the Spanish anarchists: “Dark clouds blind us.”

Note: We thank Hidayat Greenfield, IUF Regional Secretary for Asia-Pacific, for the information provided.