Capitalism's Most Inhumane Display: The Covid-19 Vaccine Business


As if the despair of confinement, concern about new infections, and mourning for those who have left us because of the pandemic were not enough, we are also forced to deal with profound outrage at one of capitalism's most inhumane anti-values: turning life and health into business.

The US, EU, and UK are opposing a proposal to exempt the Covid-19 vaccine from intellectual property rights and patents. The proposal was submitted to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in October 2020 by South Africa and India and has already been endorsed by more than 100 countries. It calls for the elimination of intellectual property barriers so that technology can be transferred to other manufacturing plants to mass-produce all the required doses and immunise the world's population as quickly as possible. According to Tedros Adhanom, director of the WHO, the world has the production capacity to achieve this — if patents weren’t in the way.

The Agreement on Trade and Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) signed by WTO member countries is nothing more than the legal protection of monopolies. It grants capital the exclusive right to produce and market a good for years based on the argument that patents are the only guarantee to encourage investment in research and development.

By using incentive as coercion, what they are really granting pharmaceutical companies is the power to decide who lives and who dies, and what we will die from. They set the research agenda based on what is most profitable for them — it is no coincidence, then, that diseases become chronic.

The fact is that research funding does not even come from the private pharmaceutical industry itself. Historically, governments have provided the financial resources, and it is mostly universities and public institutions that have conducted the research that has led to the development of the Covid-19 vaccines.

Of the $13.9 billion allocated to Covid-19 vaccine research, governments provided $8.6 billion and non-profit organisations $1.9 billion, while only $3.4 billion have been provided by private pharmaceutical companies, barely 25% of the total. In addition to this, we must consider the guarantee of a secure market for the vaccine. By December 2020, the governments of the so-called developed countries had pre-ordered 10.38 billion doses.

The US pharmaceutical company Moderna developed its Covid-19 vaccine with 100% public funding, receiving $562 million to do so. It received pre-orders for 780 million doses at an average price of around 31 dollars per dose, generating revenues amounting to $24 billion. Draw your own conclusions as to what their profits are.

Pfizer/BioNtech, also from the US, received $268 million from the government, about 66% of what it spent on research. It received pre-orders for 1.28 billion doses at an average price of $18.5 per dose, the equivalent of $23.68 billion. British-owned Astrazeneca/Oxford, received pre-orders for 3.29 billion doses, which it sells at $6 per dose, earning them $19.74 billion, but 67% of the $2.2 billion it spent on research was public money. Johnson & Johnson received orders for 1.27 billion vaccines which it sells at $10 per dose and will generate $12.7 billion for them while having made an investment of $819 million, financed with 100% public funding.

In addition to those already mentioned, vaccine prices range from $4 to $37 per dose: Sputnik-V $10 per dose; Sanofi/GSK $10-21 per dose; Novavax $16 per dose; Moderna $25-37 per dose; Sinovac $13-29 dollars per dose.

The Covid-19 vaccine is good business — seemingly the best in these times. Investment in research was provided by the governments who then handed the resources to private pharmaceutical companies. They have a guaranteed market because those same governments pre-ordered the vaccines from the companies they financed. All the profits go to the mostly private pharmaceutical companies who, thanks to the monopoly granted by the same governments through TRIPS, have exclusive production and commercialisation rights for years.

Restricting access to the vaccine as a result of patents is now taking place at a time when 500,000 people are infected and 8,000 die of the disease every day. What is this, if not capitalism's most inhumane display?

At present, while the highest-income countries are vaccinating at a rate of one person per second, most countries have yet to administer a single dose. Of the 128 million doses of vaccines administered to date, more than three-quarters have been administered in just 10 countries that account for 60% of the world's GDP. Nearly 130 countries, with a combined population of 2.5 billion people, have not yet started vaccination. It is estimated that by mid-year, only 3% of the population of the poorest countries will have been vaccinated and at best one-fifth by the end of 2021. This, in turn, will delay not only the economic recovery of these countries, but also their populations' living conditions. The US has received 25% of all globally available vaccines and the EU 12.6%.

The audacity of the US, the EU, and the UK is such that they refuse to exempt patents in order to favour their pharmaceutical capitals, despite the fact that, back in 2001 and within the WTO, they agreed to relax intellectual property rights in cases of public health emergencies: "We agree that the TRIPS Agreement does not and should not prevent members from taking measures to protect public health. Accordingly, while reiterating our commitment to the TRIPS Agreement, we affirm that the Agreement can and should be interpreted and implemented in a manner supportive of WTO Members' right to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all".

What greater public health emergency is there than a global pandemic caused by a highly contagious and lethal virus?

As if all this were not enough, it is infuriating to learn that, at an average price of $15 per dose and assuming two doses of the vaccine for 7.7 billion people, it would take $231 billion to immunise the entire world population. That is not even 5% of what the planet's 2,000 billionaires earned during the pandemic thanks to the money governments pumped into stock markets while 500 million people joined the ranks of the poor, who now number 4 billion.

Pascualina Curcio is a Venezuelan economist, Associate Professor at Universidad Simón Bolívar, and a member of the Network in Defense of Humanity.

This piece originally appeared on Ultimas Noticias.

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