Vinoth Ramachandra

Patently Unjust

Posted on: April 22, 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)

4 Responses to "Patently Unjust"

Mr Vinoth

Thanks you for thoughts on the Big Pharma Industries. I’ve recently graduated from medical school in India and doing my internship in an urban mission hospital. It pains me to see how these companies explicitly exploit the poor even during these troubling times. Medicines and Vaccines are essentials that have been turned into commodities just like Drinking Water turned into “Purified Bottled Drinking Water”. Some companies do initially help the mission hospitals with providing with cheaper expensive drugs (example: cancer drugs), but most of them over time turn their backs trying to coerce us doctors into becoming their sales men by agreeing to their terms and conditions and manipulating us away from our primary and essential role as caregivers.

During this period of time the virus has wrecked my country into pieces with cases rising daily at all time high, with overworked hospital staff who are unable to manage the already burdened health care system and the ever-growing inequalities between the rich and poor increasing at a rapid pace with unemployment and poverty rising in rural and poorer communities. This pandemic just proved the ineffectiveness of the government and the ignorance of the privileged society.

If the poor are not vaccinated and cared for then the misery and burdens they face is just simply a misfortune of them being born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to wrong families/societies. As one of my senior mentor working in a rural mission hospital quoted:
“We can suggest home quarantine and masks– but home quarantine for rural daily wages worker? Where will his daily earnings come from? Which employer or business in rural India has the system for working from home?….Masks? The urban market has bought off all the reusable masks! The rural market is emptied of all masks and sanitizers. Hospital is stitching cloth masks because disposables have been hoarded off in the cities! If health care institutions can not get mask, where will ordinary rural person get his “masks” from?”

Even during this period of tribulation with many mission hospitals across the country closed down permanently, some sold out to private entities (due to mismanagement and corruption), with lack of staff due to unattractive pay, benefits and rise in violence against doctors fuelled by hate invoked by Central Government against our work, we require your prayers cause mission hospitals act as a link for the poor in an already broken health care system in India.

Links for people to understand why the developing countries need Vaccines immediately just as much as the developed:

1. Insight into the lives of the rural society and rural mission hospital during the pandemic(March 2020), with the same problems arising during the second wave currently going on:

2. Insight into how the privilege section of the society sees the poor:

While it’s popular to bash BigPharma and there is room for critique, why do you think Pfizer and other pharmeceutical companies stock prices haven’t gone through the roof? One year ago, today it was at 35.5. Today it closed at 38.9. That is incredibly small gain, especially when you compare it to how well the rest of the market did.

The reason? They agreed to sell the vaccine fairly cheaply and the profit margin is razor thin.

Was this a matter of a private company preying on public funds to fatten their own coffers? If so, you’d think their stock price would be way up. Or is this a case where public funds enabled a private company with expertise to serve a public good?

My comment was a general one on how Big Business (not just BibPharma) is parasitic on public funds and institutions. In the case of Covid vaccines, it is public pressure through governments and the WHO that has kept the price down. I don’t know about the profit margins, but there is , in any case, no straightforward relationship between a company’s earnigs and its stock price.

Well, Vinoth, I must comment you for this piece. You brought out a lot of insights as usual. The World’s Big players (USA,EU Nations and the UK, etc.) know exactly how to play the game. They have managed to tame the rest of the developing and underdeveloped Nations (world’s majority nations and people) to maintain their wealthy positions.

I must agree with you that it is because this COVID 19 Pandemic affected the Big Players hugely that it took fewer months to develop or produce vaccines for the Pandemic. For us in West Africa, we have not been able to grapple with all that goes with their Capitalistic games or agenda. We have always sat on the receiving end of things.

In 2014-15, when our people were being killed by the Ebola Virus, we could not help ourselves or to get speedy responses from our International Partners. When thousands of Liberians, Sierra Leoneans and Guineans were dying at the hands of Ebola, we watched one American Doctor being flown back to the USA for medical attention when he contracted the EVD. Meanwhile, some of our best doctors, while providing care for Ebola patience, died causing us still to experience a deeper brain drain.

Thus, I believe it is about time that we begin to think out of the box as Africans. I would not have said it like you have said it because I feel we are all created equally. if so then we should begin to compete as equals. And we must now as Africans come to the table with equal contributions to these kind of Global responses to a pandemic like COVID-19. What stops Africa from providing a vaccine for her people?

Is it Patent Rights? We must leave or walk away from International treatise or ignore patent rights that forbid us from helping ourselves. However, we may not have much to contribute to their propaganda because we still look up to receiving from them anyway. But if we can help find solution to a global crisis like Covid-19, we must go ahead and solve our own problems.
Ah yah ( I feel Sorry)! It is difficult to say! Africa have not gotten up to the harsh reality of the games her International Partners are playing in hedging what is meant to benefit all of human kind.

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April 2021
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