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COVID-19 Chaos: The War for the Vaccine Heats Up

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The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population but 22% of the deaths from COVID-19. Considering the vast resources of this country, this is a staggering fact.

Of course, from the beginning, the coronavirus pandemic has represented a massive failure of global capitalism. The Chinese government covered up the initial outbreak in Wuhan and silenced healthcare workers who tried to warn the world. In Italy, the outbreak was made far worse by the devastating cuts to the healthcare system under the neoliberal policies of recent decades which sought to reduce the role of the public sector.

In the broadest sense we have seen the limitations of a system driven by competing national interests to deal with crises which require global cooperation. And yet the outcomes have not been the same from country to country and the U.S. is literally the worst among developed nations. Germany has had one fifth the rate of coronavirus cases while Australia’s death rate is only 2% that of the U.S. Many other examples could be given.

Why Is the U.S. the Worst?

There are two key reasons for the scale of the disaster in the U.S. The first is clearly the grotesque incompetence of the Trump regime, aided and abetted by idiot Republican governors with a few exceptions. Among major world countries, only Bolsonaro’s government in Brazil rivals the Trump regime in how brazenly and consistently it has ignored the advice of scientific experts. For many weeks Trump simply denied there was a problem and since then at every opportunity he has minimized the danger of the virus and said it would go away soon. This is not to mention advocating unproven cures like hydroxychloroquine and his refusal, until very recently, to be seen wearing a mask.

Testing at the start in the U.S., due to the refusal to use available international tests, was a complete farce, making it impossible to trace the course of the virus at the point where it could really have been contained. The sourcing and distribution of PPE, ventilators, and other necessary equipment by the government was a complete failure.

If the federal government and the states had taken decisive lockdown measures in a timely manner, 90% or more of the deaths could have been avoided, not to mention the hundreds of thousands who didn’t die but will have long-lasting health consequences from the virus.

The other cause of the severity of this crisis is the vicious, diseased nature of American capitalism itself. Trump is a natural by-product of this system but he did not create the country’s savage class and racial inequalities. While the remnants of the European “welfare state” made a difference in protecting its citizens, we live in the only advanced capitalist country without some form of universal healthcare.

To top everything off, we have had the “re-opening” fiasco. Trump, answering to the most rapacious sections of corporate America, relentlessly pushed states to reopen regardless of whether the virus was under control. Most Republican governors did his bidding although we should not forget that the Democratic governor of California, Gavin Newsom, also capitulated to business interests, leading to a chaotic reopening and a massive spike in cases. The contrast between the Northeast – which initially had the worst outbreak but where the curve was actually flattened – and states like Florida, Texas and Arizona, simply comes down to not reopening as rapidly, diligently tracing cases, and waiting until certain criteria had been met.

All of this was done in the name of “bringing the economy back,” which is code for profits. But this has been a complete failure on its own terms. The economy can’t be fully reopened until the virus is contained.

The Race to Get a Vaccine

What is needed now is to combine the scientific expertise of labs around the world to develop the best possible vaccine and then to manufacture the billions of doses necessary as rapidly as possible. The most vulnerable populations should be prioritized to receive the vaccine first and everyone should get it for free.

This is what should happen. But there is no indication that this is what will happen. Internationally, it is reported that nearly 200 companies and other institutions are working to develop a coronavirus vaccine. At least two dozen have reached the clinical trial stage. But this is in no sense a coordinated effort with the interests of the working people, poor, and frontline workers as the priority.

Trump himself has made it clear that he sees the race for the vaccine as an extension of his “America First” protectionist agenda. He is also hoping to be able to make a dramatic announcement about a vaccine in October to boost his flailing re-election effort.

Congress has allocated over $10 billion to be given to pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna with no strings attached. As a recent piece in MarketWatch pointed out, there is “not even a guarantee that any vaccines and treatments will be affordable to the people who need them.” This is despite the history of price-gouging by BigPharma in the U.S. Drug costs are the biggest contributor to the growth of healthcare costs. As the same piece points outs:

“This is a case study on who really benefits when the U.S. government hands over exclusive licensing deals with no stipulations for pricing. The industry gets richer while Americans are forced to tighten their budgets, ration medicine, or go without drugs they depend on. That’s been the reality of giving corporations control over prices.”

And to be clear: the establishment of both the Democrats and Republicans are beholden to Big Pharma. They have donated heavily to Biden’s campaign and one of his senior advisers, Steve Ricchetti, is a longtime healthcare lobbyist, who has personally represented many of the drugmakers on pricing issues. Big Pharma successfully defeated an attempt by some Democrats to include language in the CARES Act that would regulate the cost of a COVID-19 vaccine. The Democrats have not since launched a concerted campaign to reintroduce this question nor have they advocated strongly that Trump use existing executive powers to keep costs low. Biden has even come out against the use of these powers. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

There are many questions regarding a possible vaccine including how effective it will be. There are concerns among some scientists about how long immunity from a future vaccine could last. This means that multiple doses of the vaccine might need to be given over time, possibly multiple times a year. But if a sufficient part of the population nationally and globally were rapidly vaccinated, this could be enough to contain the virus if not eliminate it.

It is possible some vaccines will be ready for mass production as early as October or November. But what we have right now is a rushed process dominated by the private sector pushing ahead with virtually no controls and literally no plan for how to prioritize those who should get it first and to ensure it’s free for all.

Tragically, if the political establishment has its own way, this next chapter of the pandemic is likely to be similar to the previous chapters: a disaster for working people. This shows why working people need their own political party to fight on the streets and in the halls of power for the most basic things we need to survive.

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