Socialist Alternative

Vaccine Nationalism Threatens COVID Recovery

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The COVID pandemic has laid bare the disastrous failures of Western capitalism. A new study has concluded that 40% of U.S. COVID deaths were avoidable. That’s hundreds of thousands of people who did not need to die. The E.U., U.S., and U.K. governments have all completely failed to contain the virus. Their overarching priority has been to restart the gas of global profit making for their own domestic capitalist class, which has led to a crazed loop of lockdowns and rushed reopenings. They have resorted to nationalistic resource hoarding, which has only made the crisis worse, allowing the virus to circulate and mutate in other parts of the world. 

Unfortunately, this is not the only pandemic we will see in our life times. Scientists predict that future pandemics will happen more often, spread faster, and kill more people. The exploitation of the planet due to capitalist “development”  is what gave us COVID in the first place: deforestation and the disruption of wild habitats (always in the name of profit) increases contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people and is a key driver of the spread of infection diseases. If ever there was a doubt that capitalism has outlived its usefulness, this crisis should clear that right up.

A move toward deglobalization has meant the narrow interests of national capitalist classes have taken precedence over a globally coordinated response to the pandemic. Early in the pandemic, the U.S. chose to forgo the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVID testing technology in favor of a homemade Centers for Disease Control (CDC) test which was later recalled. This trend has only been exacerbated with the vaccination campaign where Western capitalist powers have hoarded vaccines, leaving much of the neocolonial world unprotected.

The consequences of this approach are completely counter-productive. As much as national governments may want to, it is almost impossible to seal off your borders to the COVID threat. If the virus is allowed to circulate in any one part of the globe, acquiring dangerous new mutations, the rest of the world is at risk.

Already the coronavirus variant in South Africa seems to be evading the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was heralded as the silver bullet for resolving outbreaks in the neocolonial world because it’s less expensive per dose than other vaccines. Bloomberg estimates that, at the current pace, it will take 6.6 years for the world to reach 75% immunity to COVID. 

Delivering vaccines to cover the 7.8 billion global population will be one of the greatest logistical challenges humanity has ever undertaken. Despite all the hype about capitalist innovation, this system is completely failing to meet this challenge. The consequence? Death and disease for the global working class and poor and mega profits for healthcare profiteers. Rather than innovating, the capitalist system is serving as a fetter on innovation. The normal neoliberal plays from the capitalist class, such as leaning on NGOs to pick up the slack, are failing them now. Short of central planning and bringing an end to  big pharma’s profit making, this virus will continue to make its way through the global population. 

The capitalists are between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, solving this crisis would enable them to resume profit making. But on the other, doing what’s necessary to solve the crisis requires suspending profit making for big pharma and perhaps certain sections of the logistics industry. They are desperate to return to business as usual, but the question is: will they be able to?

Global Vaccine Inequality

Early on in the pandemic, wealthy Western countries including the E.U., U.S., Canada, and Britain placed their bets on a number of vaccines in development, preordering billions of doses of the Pfizer and Moderna shots in particular. They reserved enough doses to cover their own populations multiple times over, leaving poor countries at the back of the line.

Before vaccines were even approved by regulators, it was a foregone conclusion that wealthier countries would clear the shelves of available vaccines, leaving poor countries defenseless against COVID-19. In fact, it was written into “Operation Warp Speed” contracts in the U.S. that any vaccine developed with American dollars had to go first into American arms.

It was the anticipation of this inequity that drove the creation of the COVAX program, a partnership between WHO and GAVI, a public-private “global health alliance.” GAVI, a 20-year-old initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, brings together pharmaceutical giants and national and international governing bodies to “bring vaccines to poor countries.”

The intention of the COVAX program was to financially back the development of certain vaccines in exchange for billions of doses earmarked for poor countries. But even the most far reaching of COVAX’s goals would not bring an end to the pandemic. The program aims to deliver two billion doses by the end of 2021. This would cover only 20% of the population in 91 poor and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And they are far from reaching even this most modest goal, as they’ve struggled to get sufficient backing from major capitalist powers worldwide.

The COVAX program is now in free fall and its failure could mean poor countries will not even gain access to the vaccines until 2024. 

COVAX Crisis

The road to mass vaccinations in poor countries is littered with speed bumps put in place by big pharma. Speed bumps that not even the wealthiest philanthropist can overcome. 

According to internal COVAX documents obtained by Reuters, the COVAX program faces a “very high-risk” of failure. Reuters reports, ”the scheme’s promoters say the program is struggling from a lack of funds, supply risks, and complex contractual arrangements which could make it impossible to achieve its goals.”

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which rely on brand new, revolutionary mRNA technology, have been proven highly effective. Reportedly, while they both elicit a lower antibody response to the South African variant, they’ll be generally effective if combined with a booster shot. These vaccines are faster and cheaper to produce than traditional vaccines and are laboratory developed, meaning production can be scaled up with relative ease

Despite all this, COVAX has only meager contracts with Pfizer and Moderna and billions of people around the world who live in poor countries will never get access to these life saving vaccines. Why? Profit, plain and simple. 

Despite being cheaper to produce, Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines cost four times more than the less effective AstraZeneca vaccine. Ryan Richardson, Chief Strategy Officer for BioNTech, the German company that developed the Pfizer vaccine, said that the product price “would partly reflect the risks taken by its investors.” Pfizer executives refuse to release detailed information on how they came to these pricing decisions or what they intend to do with the profits they make. Will they invest back into research and development? Highly doubtful considering Pfizer spends twice as much on advertising, executive salaries and benefits, etc. than it does on research.

Given all this, the COVAX program will barely have access to the new mRNA vaccines and will have to rely on cheaper traditional vaccines like those from AstraZeneca and Novavax. Disturbingly, this is despite the fact that Pfizer is a GAVI partner.

COVAX made a nonbinding agreement with AstraZeneca, Novavax, and Sanofi to earmark 400 million doses. Yet these three companies have all faced delays, and the AstraZeneca vaccine trials in South Africa were recently halted because it was proving ineffective against the dangerous new variant known as B.1.351.

COVAX is in such a dire position that they’ve hired CitiGroup to advise them on how to navigate financial landmines. 

Intellectual Property Rights

There’s a world not so far off from our own in which the revolutionary mRNA vaccine technology could be exported around the world, enabling countries who currently lack access to any vaccine to use the Pfizer and Moderna blueprint to make vaccines at home. 

A group of countries has proposed that the World Trade Organization (WTO) waive traditional intellectual property restrictions and allow them to do exactly this. But the WTO requires consensus, and the U.S., Britain, and the E.U. cut this effort off at the knees, doing the bidding of their big pharma masters. 

Pharmaceutical giants use typical capitalist talking points to say that patent protections are essential to innovation. How? Because allegedly patent protections enable them to make a profit, and profits enable them to innovate.

Well, considering the actual innovation for these vaccines was done using public money and resources—as is the case with the vast majority of medical breakthroughs—this argument is a complete farce. The truth is that patent protections enable them to make a profit, and profits enable them to dole out fat checks to shareholders. 

Vaccine Diplomacy and Vaccine Protectionism

The race for vaccinations is a tableau of inter-imperialist rivalries the world over. On the one hand, we’ve seen a sinister and ruthless protectionism from the U.S., E.U., and U.K., who hoard their supplies. But there’s been an equally sinister false diplomacy from China and Russia, who are giving free shipments of domestically produced vaccines to poor countries whom they are courting in their global competition with Western powers, especially the U.S. Both of these approaches, vaccine diplomacy and vaccine protectionism, can ultimately be categorized as vaccine nationalism in that they both promote narrow national interests.

Biden has generally pursued the same “America first” vaccine policy championed by Trump, minus the nationalist rhetoric, and the E.U. has taken a similar approach. In late January, the E.U. imposed vaccine export controls, instructing customs authorities to block all vaccine exports to 100 countries worldwide unless they receive explicit authorization from E.U. officials. Beyond this, there has been an ongoing battle between the E.U. and U.K. over their vaccine supplies. The New York Times commented on this, saying, “Not only are vaccine supplies too scarce for many poorer countries to begin inoculations, but wealthy countries cannot figure out how to share the available doses among themselves.” 

The E.U.’s vaccine rollout has been a total disaster, with only 5% of the population having received a dose as of early 2021. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen was forced to admit as much when she said, “We were late in getting approval, we were too optimistic about mass production, and perhaps we were too sure that the orders would be delivered on time.” 

The criminal approach of vaccine protectionism will have dire consequences for the entire world. The longer it takes for us to battle this virus globally, the longer we’ll be fighting it at home.

In contrast to this approach, and with the COVAX program falling apart, the Russian and Chinese ruling classes have leapt into action.

In a “soft power” move, China and Russia are offering their home grown vaccines—Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinovec and Sinopharm—to large parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. In some cases they are sending hundreds of thousands of doses for “free.” While dressed up as diplomacy, this is an attempt to cement alliances in their ongoing rivalry with U.S. imperialism. The Chinese and Russian ruling classes are far more concerned with reinforcing the dependence of poor countries on them than they are with guaranteeing global public health.

Rollout Mess in the U.S.

Trump made big promises at the end of his presidency, including that 20 million Americans would get their first vaccine dose by the start of January. In reality, as the new year rolled in, less than three million doses had been administered. 

The news that Joe Biden would “move heaven and earth” to administer 100 million vaccines within his first 100 days in office was music to the ears of millions of Americans. The vaccine infrastructure as Joe Biden entered the White House was abysmal, sloppy, and largely unfunded. His administration has managed to ramp the pace of vaccinations up to 1.6 million a day which, while a serious improvement from the start of the year, is still insufficient as we’re racing to outpace the coronavirus variants.

Trump’s Vaccine Failure

As Socialist Alternative warned in an early December article: 

“One tremendous challenge we now face is getting the vaccine from the lab’s loading dock to your upper arm. This is no easy feat, especially on the basis of capitalism where logical planning is thrown out the window in the pursuit of maximizing profits.”

And indeed, logical planning was thrown out the window right from the start. When the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the CDC had yet to release vaccine guidelines and no money had been sent to the states to build up vaccine infrastructure. COVID cases continued to climb dramatically. 

It’s impossible to understate the mammoth pressures that have been put on American healthcare workers in this crisis. COVID cases piled up while hospital workers made makeshift ICUs in ambulance bays with dangerous patient-staff ratios. And then the vaccine arrived. With no additional staff, training, or funding, healthcare workers were expected to administer thousands of vaccine doses to as yet unidentified priority groups. This contributed immensely to the expiration of many of the vaccine doses that were shipped out. Even now, across the country, around 20% are still going to waste, which is an absolute scandal. This can be contrasted to the U.K., where, despite horrific failures in dealing with the pandemic, their public health system (the National Health Service) has enabled them to administer at least one dose to 25% of the population.

Contributing to the chaos was the complete lack of guidance from the federal government. The CDC released a tiered plan for prioritization on December 20. But before that, no two states had the same priority groups or timing estimates for distributing the vaccine. Because the CDC guidelines were just that, guidelines with no mandate, states generally stuck to their original plans and operated under a patchwork of different rules. 

The coordination between federal and state governments has been a total joke. Throughout the pandemic, governors have reported a “wild west” scenario where states compete against one another on the market for PPE and other needed supplies. This chaos has been replicated in many ways with the vaccine campaign.

Enter Stage Left: Joe Biden

Joe Biden was inaugurated on January 20 and has declared a “wartime effort” to bring COVID under control. This includes using the Defense Production Act to speed up manufacturing, giving billions in direct aid to states to build up their infrastructure, launching a public health jobs program and hiring hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers, expanding vaccination sites, and launching a public education campaign about the benefits of the COVID vaccine.

The pace of vaccinations has indeed picked up, though some portion of that is not due to any intervention from the Biden administration directly but rather to state systems becoming more efficient. One thing that can be credited to the Biden administration is the increase in production due to their use of the wartime Defense Production Act, which allows the federal government to centrally control production of necessary supplies.

The remaining components of Biden’s “wartime effort” which have yet to be passed are completely within reach for the Democrats, who now control both houses of Congress. They can drive through desperately needed aid using budget reconciliation or by abolishing the undemocratic filibuster rules. It seems they are moving forward with this process, though with insufficient speed and determination. And even using budget reconciliation, it is Democrats themselves who could be the obstacle. If just one Democratic senator refuses to support Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan, it’s dead in the water. 

Big Business Intervention

It’s important to underline that the scale of Biden’s proposals has nothing to do with his benevolence. This scale of spending and intervention is in service of big business, who are desperate to get people back to work and restart their profit-making machine. It’s for this exact same reason that big business is stepping into the vacuum to drive vaccination efforts in states across the country. 

In North Carolina, Honeywell International, Atrium Health, and Tepper Sports & Entertainment are combining their vast networks to launch a big business–driven vaccination pilot program. They are turning the Charlotte Motor Speedway into a privately run and operated drive-through vaccination site. In Washington state, Starbucks is stepping into the game. And at the national level, Amazon’s vice president of worldwide operations sent a letter to Biden offering the corporation’s “operations, information technology, and communications capabilities” to the national vaccination effort.

Biden has signaled enthusiasm about private sector intervention. This is the opposite of what we need. While the massive resources of corporations may help in this situation because it’s in their interests, in general, when big business is substituted for public institutions, the end result is a race to the bottom. The logic of private ownership is that profits have to be paid out to shareholders rather than invested in expanding and improving service. We need to take the vast resources of these major corporations, like Amazon, into democratic public ownership and integrate them to build a high-quality, transparent public healthcare system. The profits of billionaires like Jeff Bezos have no place in our COVID escape route. 

The Need for a Socialist World

Global capitalism is in total crisis. We have seen a clear degeneration of the system even as compared to twelve years ago with the 2008-9 crash. The response of the ruling class at that time was wholly insufficient, which they now broadly accept with their temporary adoption of Keynesian measures. However, in contrast to today, at the very least the global ruling class was somewhat united in 2008-9. The Obama administration coordinated moves with China and the E.U., as compared to the “everyone for themselves” nationalism we’ve seen this past year. This approach will be ever more disastrous in years to come as we face more and possibly worse pandemics, as well as the far broader challenge of climate change.

The challenge facing ruling classes around the world, including the American ruling class, cannot be understated. In acknowledgment of this, they are being forced to use state intervention into the economy on a scale we haven’t seen since the 1930s. This can be seen with the massive stimulus spending in the U.S. as well as plans for major investment in infrastructure. Of course, at the same time, the bulk of the aid they’re giving ordinary people will run out in the not too distant future and they will then, in predictable fashion, seek to make the working class pay the bill for the crisis they have created.

The tasks ahead for the world working class are mammoth. In the short term, we need to demand a global, public plan for mass vaccinations. This means immediately waiving all patent and “intellectual property” protections on the COVID vaccines and bringing Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and all of big pharma into democratic public ownership. This would enable us to combine their vast resources and technology and rapidly scale up producing and distributing the vaccines around the world. 

In a much broader sense, we need to intervene decisively to prevent even worse and further disasters. This means building and developing fighting, mass, left-wing organizations of the working class around the world. It means building an international socialist movement to fight for a world built around solidarity rather than the narrow nationalist interests of the global capitalist class.

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