Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for April 2021

Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, last month attributed the development of Covid-19 vaccines to “capitalism” and “greed”.

Although he was reported to have later backtracked, with some of his aids claiming that his comments were made in jest (quoting the film Wall Street), Johnson’s comment is typical of a widespread myth, propagated by conventional economics, that capitalist “innovation”, funded by visionary private investors, is largely responsible for the scientific and technological progress on which our health and prosperity rests.

Johnson seems to have forgotten that his own government promised pharmaceutical companies to underwrite the risks attendant on vaccine development and used public funds to to place huge advance orders for Covid-19 vaccines. Thus the normal risks associated with vaccine development were almost completely removed from investors.

That’s how Big Business capitalism, typified by the pharmaceutical industry and the Internet giants, operates today. Capitalism preys on public funds and public trust. Corporations walk away with the profits, while the public bears the costs.

In a trenchant critique of typical fantasies about capitalism, David Whyte of Liverpool University points out that, prior to the current pandemic, vaccine development was extremely sluggish because previous viruses did not threaten rich nations’ economies.  Earlier coronavirus diseases, Sars and Mers, had no vaccine. The Ebola vaccine was finally approved in 2019, sixteen years after it was first patented and a full six years after the start of the epidemic in West Africa, though the costs of Ebola to these countries was estimated at more than US$50b.

Whyte concludes that “There can be little doubt that racial capitalism and global economics has shaped our response to this virus… Most advanced economies stand to lose at least 4.5% of GDP as a result of this pandemic. So we needed COVID-19 vaccines to save these economies.”

He also reminds us that the “infrastructure that produced the COVID-19 vaccines was nurtured in publicly funded universities, in public institutes and in heavily subsidised private labs.” This is knowledge that is held in common. Universities “provide trained scientists and a foundation of knowledge that emerges over hundreds of years. It is in universities that the rules for clinical research are developed, and it is university researchers who publish results in academic journals which provide that knowledge foundation.” However, in the current economic models, such knowledge production counts “as an ‘externality’ that never shows up on a corporate balance sheet, because corporations never have to pay for them.

Thus, even though the scientific research community is a global one, scientific priorities are skewed by rich nations’ interests.

Furthermore, many of the researchers at AstraZenica, Pfizer and universities such as Oxford were born and educated at local tax-payers expense in the “developing” world. This is also what makes the current gross imbalance in vaccine distribution grossly unfair.

More than a year into the pandemic, three-quarters of the current vaccine supply has been secured and administered by 10 countries that account for 60 percent of global economic growth, while about 130 countries- home to 2.5 billion people- have not received a single dose. COVAX, the global initiative to coordinate the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in an equitable way, has fallen far short of its aim to deliver 100 million doses by the end of March.

Brazil has been devastated by Covid-19, with infection rates only less than the USA. Yet its local pharmaceutical industry is hindered from manufacturing and distributing vaccines owing to patents held by the US and UK industry giants.

In October 2020, South Africa and India called on the World Trade Organization to suspend its agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. This would facilitate the transfer of technology and scientific know-how to developing countries to bolster global production. (The Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network, which includes the Serum Institute of India- the world’s largest vaccine maker- has been supplying some 3.5 billion vaccines to the world annually).

However, several high-income countries (including the US, UK and many EU members) and pharmaceutical companies have rejected the idea of a waiver, claiming that it would deter private investment and hamper further innovation.  

This is to ignore the fact that vaccine developers received about $10bn in public and non-profit funding for their vaccine candidates, with the five top companies securing between $950m and $2.1bn in funding commitments, mostly from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the US government, as reported by the prestigious Lancet medical journal.

A group of more than 170 former world leaders and Nobel laureates has urged United States President Joe Biden to support the South African and Indian proposal, demanding the World Trade Organization (WTO) temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents so that vaccine know-how and technology can be shared openly with all.

Christian theology has long held that the right to life trumps the right to private property. If I have food or life-saving drugs in my home that I don’t need for my survival, yet my poor neighbour is starving or seriously ill, then if the latter were to break into my home to take what he needs for his survival is not an act of theft. Rather, it is I who am guilty of theft by withholding it from him.

Here is one representative quote from one of the Early Church Fathers, Basil of Caesarea (c.329 CE- c.379 CE):

“Will not one be called a thief who steals the garment of one already clothed, and is one deserving of any other title who will not clothe the naked if he is able to do so? That bread which you keep belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless; that gold which you have hidden in the ground, to the needy. Wherefore, as often as you were able to help others, and refused, so often did you do them wrong.” (For more such arguments, see my Gods That Fail, Ch.4 or Subverting Global Myths, Ch.3)



April 2021