Source: Dr. Partha Sarathi Sahana/Flickr

The news of the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines gave millions a reason to hope for a swift end to the pandemic. But these hopes are quickly being dashed as the rollout is beset by countless delays. At the heart of these delays is the profit motive and production for profit inherent to the capitalist system, which is throwing up endless obstacles on the path out of the crisis. Only a socialist solution can guarantee a rapid end to the horror of COVID-19.

Vaccine research: Socialising risk, privatising profits

Out of the total of more than 60 different vaccine candidates in development, a handful have passed Phase 3 trials and have been approved for public use. The Canadian government has approved two candidates: one produced by a collaboration between U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, and the other by the Boston-based Moderna. Several others are in review and on track for a quick approval.

This is an exceptionally rapid development when compared with other vaccines. The average vaccine takes about 10–15 years to produce. Before the pandemic, the fastest vaccine ever developed—a mumps vaccine—took four years. Countless numbers of scientists, technicians and workers have moved mountains to pull off such a feat and deserve all the credit for the vaccines’ successes.

Yet despite the rapid speed of development relative to other vaccines, governments were initially slow to provide funding. According to one analysis of global vaccine funding statistics in 2020, $254 million in funding was announced by the end of February, followed by $3.3 billion by the end of April, and then $34.7 billion by the end of June. For comparison, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that COVID-19 was a global pandemic on March 11. The money came in drips and drops for months while the politicians sat on their hands. The floodgates were only opened after it became clear that the pandemic wouldn’t go away on its own.

This sluggishness is because of the miserly attitude of the capitalists and their hired politicians who are looking for the cheapest possible way out of the crisis. In fact, the most vociferous voices of the right wing, including Quebec Premier François Legault and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, were promoting the idea that so-called “herd immunity” would develop naturally and the virus would simply disappear of its own accord. This is a callous interpretation of the scientific idea of herd immunity. The term is used to describe the proportion of a population that needs to be immune to a virus before the it dies off. The notion that immunity should be achieved by exposing the mass of the population to the virus, with the accompanying death toll, rather than vaccinations, is nothing short of monstrous. The politicians’ “solution”—which, of course, costs nothing at all—claims the cover of “science” while ignoring all evidence, which has shown that such a strategy would be highly likely to fail and would cause millions of preventable deaths.

Eventually, the crisis got so bad that the politicians were forced to concede, allocating substantial funding to vaccine research. In the U.S., Moderna received $2.5 billion through Donald Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” initiative. Pfizer and BioNTech took $443 million from the German government, along with $118 million in loans from the European Investment Bank. The Canadian government gave handouts to a number of private companies, including Quebec-based Medicago, which took $173 million to construct new manufacturing facilities. 

Private interests eventually poured billions into a few promising candidates that were nearing the end of clinical trials. But this only came after governments funded the far less profitable stages of research and development. As one article from the BBC explains:

However, initially [private] firms didn’t rush in to fund vaccine projects. Creating vaccines, especially in the teeth of an acute health emergency, hasn’t proved very profitable in the past. The discovery process takes time and is far from certain. Poorer nations need large supplies but can’t afford high prices. And vaccines usually need to be administered just once or twice. Medications that are wanted in wealthier countries, especially ones that require daily doses, are bigger money-spinners.

Firms that began work on vaccines for other diseases such as Zika and Sars had their fingers burnt. On the other hand, the market for flu’ [sic] jabs, which is worth several billion dollars a year, suggests that if Covid-19, like flu, is here to stay and requires annual booster jabs, then it could be profitable for the firms that come up with the most effective, and most cost-effective products.

These lines show the staggering cynicism of the drug barons, who subordinate everything, including public health, to the naked pursuit of profits. Vaccine production is considered a “high-risk, low-reward” venture by the profiteers. Research and development is slow, results are not guaranteed, and poor countries that are most in need of supply are the least likely to be able to afford it. This explains why investors routinely abandon research into life-saving treatments for diseases like Zika and Ebola. The most profitable drugs aren’t the ones that save lives, but the ones that need to be prescribed over a long period, or “lifestyle drugs” like Viagra that can be sold in wealthy countries and are guaranteed to produce stable profits.

Most damning of all is the attitude of the capitalists after the outbreak of the last pandemic caused by a coronavirus. The SARS outbreak of 2002–2004, which was caused by the SARS-CoV-1 strain, is closely related to the virus that causes COVID-19. After the urgency of the SARS epidemic subsided, despite warnings from scientists that a future pandemic was inevitable, drug companies and governments defunded research into coronavirus vaccines. This is inevitable under capitalism, because as soon as a pandemic ends, the market for vaccines dries up. Much of this research, had it been completed, could have been used to form the foundation for the rapid development of a new vaccine for COVID-19. Countless lives could have been saved. Instead, these people died because saving them did not guarantee sufficient profits for the capitalists.

Because of the reluctance of the drug companies to invest, the majority of funding for COVID-19 vaccine research has come in the form of a gift from public funds to private corporations. The public has every right to demand that these vaccines be made available at cost. But this would be contrary to the interests of the big pharma bosses. Because their books are closed, it’s not possible to know the real costs of research and development, clinical trials and manufacturing. But what we can be sure of is that the pharmaceutical companies don’t produce at all unless they are assured of a handsome return. In fact, one analyst from SVB Leerink has suggested that Pfizer could earn a “decent” profit margin of 60 per cent to 80 per cent on vaccine sales! Together, Pfizer and Moderna are expected to rake in $32 billion in COVID-19-related revenue by the end of 2021. The finished vaccines are being sold back to the government that funded them in the first place, and at a substantial markup. The public will be made to pay twice for the vaccine.

Poor countries denied access

Another consequence of private ownership in vaccine production is that researchers are isolated in individual enterprises, shackled by intellectual property law, which prevents them from sharing valuable discoveries and resources with each other. This has led to the proliferation of dozens of different vaccine candidates, many of which are based on different technologies, and have their own storage and transportation requirements. In particular, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require storage at temperatures far below that of standard medical freezers, complicating the rollout.

Since not all vaccine candidates will be guaranteed to work, rich countries hedged their bets and placed orders far in excess of what is required. While all the rich countries participated in the scramble, Canada was by far the worst offender—ordering an astonishing 8.9 doses per head, enough to vaccinate the population nearly five times over.

This hoarding is having catastrophic effects on poorer countries—poor precisely because of imperialist exploitation by the rich nations—who are pushed out of the vaccine market by countries that are able to pay. Rich countries with only 14 per cent of the world’s population have secured 53 per cent of the vaccines. Thanks to the behaviour of the supposedly civilized leaders of the richest nations, nine out of 10 people in poor countries will be denied access to the vaccine

The WHO has called this a “catastrophic moral failure”. We agree: people will die because of the profit motive. But this explanation alone is not enough. Decisions in society are not made based on abstract ideas about what is “good”. The actions of politicians and the bosses are conditioned by the system of property relations that underlies society. In other words, this outcome was a foregone conclusion under capitalism, due to the limits imposed by private property and the nation state. Each country jealously guards its own interests against everyone else, regardless of the consequences for the world as a whole.

This point was underscored by a recent study featured in The New York Times that tried to make the economic case for more equitable vaccine distribution, pointing to the fact that lockdowns in poor countries will depress world trade. This will have knock-on effects on the economies of rich countries, which will intensify the world financial crisis. Here our capitalists have found themselves in a blind alley. To solve this problem, governments would have to force the big pharma bosses to artificially lower the price of their product to make distribution in poor countries viable—obliging them to lose a portion of their profits—in order to protect the system as a whole. Yet these same governments are relying on the drug companies to produce the vaccine, which they will refuse to do if their profits are not assured. Thus they are permitted to run roughshod over the whole world economy. 

Any attempt to circumvent the problem on a capitalist basis is doomed to failure. The example of the WHO’s COVAX programme is instructive. COVAX has the goal of distributing two billion vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries by the end of 2021. Leaked documents have already suggested that its leaders think the program has a “very high” risk of failure. Part of the problem is that there is a massive $4.9-billion hole in funding, which will prevent COVAX from buying enough vaccines. Even if they manage to bridge the gap, the real power remains in the hands of the vaccine producers, whose prices are not determined by goodwill but by market forces. If the price of vaccines goes up due to an increase in demand, poor countries will again find themselves priced out, and the cycle begins anew.

Last summer, the ruling class media raised a stink about Russian hackers allegedly trying to “hinder response efforts” by stealing research and intellectual property related to vaccine development in Canada, the U.S. and Britain. One wonders exactly how the spread of intellectual property to one country could hinder vaccine development in another. The real question is, why is vaccine research private in the first place? The majority of it was funded with public money! It should be made available to everyone at no cost.

Organizations like Doctors Without Borders have warned that solving the pandemic could be impossible if companies refuse to share research and intellectual property. There are many vaccine manufacturers around the world, especially in poor countries, that are capable of producing vaccines, but don’t have access to research, technology and data, which is protected by intellectual property laws that favour the big corporations.

On paper, the law favours the public. For example, the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), negotiated in 1994 by all member nations of the World Trade Organization (WTO), guarantees intellectual property protection for all companies when selling their products in a WTO member country. But on the initiative of the WHO, this was amended by the 2001 Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health—also agreed to by all WTO member states—which affirms that public health concerns always trump intellectual property rights.

The reality is another matter. According to a 2019 Oxfam report, the pharmaceutical companies regularly flout this agreement, subjecting poor countries to ever more aggressive IP protection through free-trade agreements. This is because capitalism cares only about profit, not human need.

There was a recent proposal by India and South Africa at the WTO calling for a waiver on intellectual property rights to allow poor countries to produce their own vaccines. Scandalously, this was opposed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government, along with governments from other wealthy regions, including the United States and the European Union. 

This is utterly hypocritical behaviour from Trudeau, who recently signed a Washington Post op-ed calling for “global cooperation in terms of resources, expertise and experiences” in fighting the pandemic. The reality is much different: not only are the Liberals the worst hoarders of vaccines in the world, but now they are deliberately blocking the road for poor countries to end the crisis! Trudeau’s “sunny ways” disposition is an increasingly thin veneer to cover up the fact that the state is inseparably bound up with the monopoly capitalists. At the end of the day they defend the same interests.

Anarchy in production

Governments in the rich countries have already fallen well behind their vaccination targets. In Britain, for example, about 250,000 doses are being administered weekly, but doctors are suggesting that at least 2 million doses per week must be administered to prevent a third wave. And despite being the worst hoarder of vaccines in the world, Canada is well behind other countries in the rollout. For example, while Britain has vaccinated 18.86 per cent of its population and the U.S. 12.81 per cent, Canada has mustered a paltry 2.9 per cent.

Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that Canada does not have any domestic vaccine production capacity of its own. Therefore, the government is more reliant on the international market than countries that can produce for themselves. Trudeau was recently forced to admit that Canada’s domestic vaccine production capacity has all but disappeared, saying “we used to have it decades ago, but we no longer have it.” This is true: Canada did once have its own publicly owned pharmaceutical company, Connaught Labs, which once orchestrated a mass vaccination campaign that played a role in ending smallpox in Latin America. It is likely that had Connaught existed today, it could have been used to mass produce a vaccine domestically. But the lab was sold to private interests in the 1980s by the Mulroney government and has largely been dismantled. The remains belong to French pharmaceutical company Sanofi. But Sanofi has already announced that it will not be producing its COVID-19 vaccine in Canada.

New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh has called for the establishment of a new Crown corporation that can produce drugs and vaccines at cost within Canada. This is a good demand. However, there are a number of private firms in the country that already have this capability. For example, Montreal-based biotech company PnuVax has claimed that they could have been mass-producing vaccines as early as November 2020, but were not selected for a public-private partnership by the government. Instead of producing life-saving vaccines, their facilities are sitting idle.

There are other examples of companies like PnuVax across the country. All of these should be immediately expropriated and taken into public ownership. No compensation is necessary as their value has already been paid for many times over by previous rounds of state funding. This is the only way to guarantee that vaccines can be made available as soon as possible.

The vast majority of vaccines delivered to Canadians are being sourced from private corporations on the world market and are therefore subject to the irrationality of capitalist production. Earlier this month we wrote that capitalism creates gaps in the supply chain. This is because vaccine companies sell far more doses than they can actually supply, later striking deals with other companies for materials necessary to produce the vaccines. This lack of central coordination and control ends up creating huge and unnecessary delays.

This is the real reason why multiple vaccine manufacturers have made dramatic cuts to their delivery agreements in recent weeks. On Jan. 29, Moderna announced that vaccine shipments to Canada in February would be 25 per cent less than originally agreed to. The same story is playing out in Europe, where British manufacturer AstraZeneca has already cut their planned deliveries to the European Union by 60 per cent for the first quarter of 2021.

Pfizer has also announced that it will temporarily reduce shipments to Canada and the European Union. The official reason for this is that a plant in Belgium needs to be shut down and retooled to support increased demand. Initially, Pfizer said that there would be a 50 per cent reduction in supply for four weeks starting on Jan. 25, and promised that all affected countries would be treated equally. As it turns out, some countries are more equal than others. Pfizer later changed their plan, bringing supply for EU countries back up to full capacity in less than a week. Canadians, however, will remain at the reduced supply rate for the full four weeks. 

This is especially scandalous because on the day before the announcement, Pfizer demanded a freeze on corporate tax rates from the federal government, citing the need for “certainty and predictability” in the federal tax scheme. One wonders why these gangsters think they have the right to demand certainty and predictability from anyone. Of course, it’s not possible to prove conclusively that Pfizer is holding vaccines hostage as a means to force the government’s hand. But what is certain is that as long as private property exists in the means of production, the monopolists have the ability to manipulate the world situation to suit their narrow financial interests.

Wrecking the rollout

When vaccines first arrived in Canada, more than three-quarters of the doses sat in freezers for weeks before being administered. The official reason for the delay is the logistical complications of working with different types of vaccines, and especially the mRNA-based Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which require ultra-cold storage. This undoubtedly plays a role. But the decisive factor is the massive cuts to public health care that have taken place over a period of decades. We have already written about how these cuts have created a situation where chronic mismanagement led to hospitals operating at above 100 per cent capacity before the pandemic. Shortages of everything from hospital beds to personal protective equipment have been commonplace for decades. Now, there is a shortage in staff trained to administer the vaccine. The problem has become so acute that professors are recommending that family physicians, pharmacists and even veterinarians join the effort to speed up the rollout.

The provinces are incapable of fixing the root cause of these problems. Instead, they are cutting corners and ignoring science. According to Pfizer, their vaccine requires two doses, spaced 21 days apart. But since Pfizer announced the reduction in supply, provincial governments are lengthening the time between the first and second doses—in most provinces to 42 days, but in the case of Quebec up to 90 days. General Rick Hillier, who is leading Ontario’s distribution program, even suggested that the second dose of the two-dose Moderna vaccine should be skipped entirely. Hillier was forced to do an about-face after a well-deserved round of public ridicule. 

The thinking behind these decisions goes something like this: if we vaccinate as many people as possible, even if immunity is only partial, this will reduce the spread faster than fully vaccinating fewer people. But there is no evidence to support this. Data from Pfizer’s Phase 3 clinical trials were based on doses administered only nine days apart, so it is unknown how long a single vaccine is effective for. The findings from one independent review suggested that the efficacy rate of a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine is 52 per cent. This is well below the over 90 per cent rate for the full course. 

If lockdowns are lifted while millions of people have only partial immunity, it could actually increase the rate of transmission. This is especially worrying because the virus is developing new and potentially more dangerous strains. Evidence is emerging that the new U.K. strain, for example, could be both more contagious and more deadly. On the other hand, it appears that existing vaccines may be less effective against the new South African variant. This is clearly a worrying development. The longer the pandemic drags on, the more opportunities there will be for even more dangerous strains to emerge. 

Fight COVID-19, fight for socialism

The disgusting spectacle of the response to COVID-19 has starkly revealed the utter incompetence of the bourgeoisie in the face of the greatest crisis in generations. Each week of delays increases the chance that the vaccine will not be effective against new mutations. This could extend the length of the pandemic for months or even years. Millions more will be consigned to painful, lonely and unnecessary deaths. Still more will be forced to contend with the long-term effects of infection, the full extent of which is not yet clear.

This means the fight for socialism is more urgent than ever. The big pharmaceutical companies in all countries must be expropriated, merged into one state enterprise, and put under democratic workers’ control. Such an enterprise could unite all the best scientists under a single roof, able to share research and resources freely instead of being artificially isolated in different institutions, which only benefits the profiteers. Intellectual property in medicine must be abolished so that the fruits of scientific labour are available to all. A planned economy, guided by a democratic plan of production, would be able to marshal humanity’s resources toward a rapid end to the pandemic, and put measures in place to prevent a repeat of this horrifying crisis.

The apologists of capitalism declare that private property is the main driver of technological and scientific innovation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from being an instrument of progress, the capitalist mode of production has created massive barriers that only a socialist revolution can sweep away. This is the historic task of the working class and the oppressed, who must liberate the world from the chains of private property and chart a course toward a healthy and prosperous future for humanity.