A worrying new variant of COVID-19 has emerged, designated B.1.1.529 or Omicron. This strain was an inevitable product of the reckless pursuit of short-term capitalist interests, which are dragging out this seemingly endless pandemic nightmare.
The Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa, where it has been rapidly outcompeting the formerly dominant Delta variant in Gauteng, with the official seven-day average of national cases leaping from about 300 to over 4,000 in late November. Omicron has already begun spreading around the world, with cases detected in Italy, Germany, the UK, Israel, Hong Kong and Denmark.
As has been the story throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: this did not need to happen. On the basis of a rational, global plan, we probably could have eradicated COVID-19 by now. 9bn vaccine doses have already been manufactured, with 12bn expected by the end of the year: enough to immunise everyone on the planet.
But while over 60 percent of people in most western countries have had a full course, the number drops to 3 percent in low-income countries. This dismal figure is entirely due to Big Pharma’s hunt for profit above all concerns for human lives; and vaccine protectionism by wealthy nations. This has created ideal conditions for more communicable and resilient new strains of the virus to develop. As we wrote back in March:
“By hoarding and squabbling over vaccines in a race to immunise their own populations first, the richest countries are risking countless lives... Meanwhile, the virus continues to circulate and mutate in poorer countries, risking the emergence of new, more transmissible, and deadlier strains.”
The pharmaceutical capitalists and imperialist nations abandoned the poorest countries to fend for themselves. Billions of people were left no defence against the virus, following decades of economic strangulation that left their countries’ health and social infrastructure in tatters. Now, the whole world could be about to pay a grim price for the imperialists’ callous, conscious policy to prioritise their respective economic recoveries, precisely when international cooperation is most needed.
You reap what you sow
The World Health Organisation (WHO) announced Omicron poses a “very high risk” to the global fight against COVID-19, and could lead to “severe consequences”, in the form of new infection surges all around the globe. As many as 15 million people have died as a result of the pandemic, directly and indirectly. Further waves of cases will drive this death toll even higher.
While real-world data on Omicron is still limited, it contains a record 32 mutations to the spike protein used to enter human cells. Based on the data available from South Africa, it could be anything from 100 percent to 500 percent more transmissible than the Delta variant, and scientists worry it could escape the immunity conferred by vaccination.
This has led the World Health Organisation (WHO) to identify Omicron as a ‘Variant of Concern’ – their most serious rating. In response, dozens of countries have imposed bans on visitors from Southern Africa. This is a case of shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. Omicron has arrived. What we do not know yet is how virulent it is, in terms of its capacity to cause serious illness, and how resistant it will be against current vaccines will be against it. But we can be reasonably confident that, in poor countries dependent largely on ‘natural’ immunity, it will wreak havoc.
It is no accident that this strain has emerged in South Africa, where the official national vaccination rate is a mere 27 percent, and far lower in rural populations.
This is actually one of the higher vaccination rates on the continent, and the South African government claims it has enough vaccines for the next five months. The problem is that many of these vaccines are donated doses that are close to their expiration date, meaning there is a slim window to administer them; coupled with a lack of cold storage, inadequate infrastructure, and missing links in the supply chain (particularly syringes), this makes it difficult to scale up the rollout. Had South Africa not been starved of vaccines from the beginning, it would not be in this position.
All the previously dominant coronavirus strains emerged in countries (e.g. Britain, India, Brazil) where large, unvaccinated populations were allowed to mix for extended periods of time – either due to the ‘herd immunity’ strategies pursued by right-wing politicians to avoid closing down their economies, low access to vaccines, or both.
Given the persistently low vaccination rate in large swathes of the world, a strain like Omicron was entirely predictable. As we previously explained, allowing ‘old’ strains of the virus to circulate freely encourages it to adapt and overcome the immunity conferred through previous infection and vaccination, both of which train the body to spot the coronavirus’ spike protein and mount a response:
“The way to stop the occurrence of new variants that go on to kill far more people is to stop natural selection. The easiest way to stop evolution is to keep population sizes low... Politically this means prioritising reducing the spread of the virus over corporate profits. This is a choice that capitalist politicians are just not willing to make.”
While Omicron is bad news for humanity, it is very good news for the Big Pharma capitalists, who are happy to keep riding the pandemic gravy train for as long as they can, irrespective of the resulting chaos and loss of life:
“In reports to investors these corporations have predicted strong profits on developing booster shots to respond to new variants. It is not in their financial interest to eradicate the virus. In a modern take on evolution, one can conceptualize a symbiotic relationship between SARS-CoV-2 and biotech investors, both united in their parasitism of the bodies of working class people.”
Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna are presently making $1,000 in profit every second, with the former currently set to rake in $36 billion from vaccine sales by the end of 2021. These superprofits are the result of direct sales to the richest countries, who can afford to buy doses in bulk, and are currently clamouring for updated vaccines and booster shots. As news of the Omicron variant spread, the shares of pharmaceutical companies rallied in stock exchanges across the world. It is hard to imagine a more eloquent expression of the sickness of capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Big Pharma capitalists continue to staunchly oppose any attempt to pry intellectual property rights to the COVID-19 vaccines from their grasp. This is despite the fact that the majority of the actual research behind these vaccines was conducted by the state, using public money. These pirates simply use their financial clout and control over the means of medical production to secure patents on these lifesaving medicines, and cream off the profits.
A year ago, delegates from South Africa and India appealed to the World Trade Organisation to waive patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines, so that cheap derivatives could be produced locally in poorer countries. This was immediately shot down by a number of imperialist WTO members, including the US, EU and UK, at the behest of their respective pharmaceutical capitalists, who spend millions every year on lobbying efforts.
While US president Joe Biden has since nominally come out in favour of IP waivers (once America’s vaccine supply was assured), the imperialists have done precisely nothing to affect this. On the contrary, Germany in particular remains firmly opposed to waiving IP protection on vaccines, arguing that “intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future.” In short, the institution of private property cannot be undermined even in the direst of crises.
Vaccine hoarding has led to wealthy countries monopolising 87 percent of the global supply. The western bourgeois all scrambled to stockpile doses – squabbling among themselves in the process – in a race to reopen their economies and get profits flowing faster than their competitors.
You would think that the COVID-19 pandemic, which poses an existential threat to the entire capitalist system, would convince so-called world leaders to put aside their immediate national interests in favour of a united front against a common enemy. Instead, they have raced one another to hoard doses to the point of possessing four or five times more than their entire populations require.
Despite repeated warnings by scientific authorities that vaccine protectionism would put their own populations and economic recoveries at risk in the long run, they have offered little to poorer nations other than empty platitudes and crocodile tears.
Booster jabs are in the process of being rolled out to all adults in countries like Britain. Meanwhile, only 25 percent of people in Zimbabwe, and 14 percent in Namibia, have had their first dose. And with demand previously slumping due to high vaccination rates, rich countries have been dumping literally millions of doses approaching their use-by date.
The British Medical Journal found the US alone had already thrown out more than 180,000 vaccine doses by the end of March. Worldwide, 241m doses could be poured down the drain, because there is no immediate incentive to ship them overseas before they expire. Only the anarchy of the market could produce such an outrageous contradiction!
A G7 summit chaired by Biden in September set a target of helping the 92 poorest countries reach a vaccination rate of 40 percent by the end of this year. These promises evaporated into hot air almost immediately. The G7 is set to fall well short of its goal, which was far too limited in any case. The US has delivered only 25 percent of its promised quota, the European Union 19 percent and the UK 11 percent. All of this means that COVAX, the WHO initiative set up to channel vaccines to poorer countries, has only reached two-thirds of its 2bn vaccine target for 2021.
Adding insult to injury, there has been a massive flow of vaccines out of the countries that need them most. For instance, millions of doses of the single-jab Johnson & Johnson vaccine manufactured in South Africa – critical to the country’s vaccination drive after the suspension of AstraZeneca – were shipped off last year to meet orders from rich European countries. So not only have the imperialist crooks refused to offer up even the vaccines they don’t need, the Big Pharma capitalists are continuing to exploit African countries to inflate western stockpiles.
The consequences of these criminal policies are starting to be felt at home. Only weeks ago many countries in the west were proudly announcing the imminent end of the pandemic and the return of ‘normality’. But now, with cases, hospitalisations and deaths already beginning to climb in the winter months, Omicron has put the prospect of new lockdowns back on everybody's mind.
Major protests have broken out in several European countries against the abrupt introduction of new social distancing measures and lockdowns, coupled with mandatory vaccination. Notwithstanding the fascists and conspiracy theorists leading these demonstrations, they reveal the extent to which public trust in the establishment has collapsed following two years in which they have manifestly failed to get a handle on the pandemic.
What is to be done?
The myopia and vampiric exploitation of poorer countries by capitalist imperialism is squarely to blame for the emergence of Omicron. This new strain is a monster of the system’s making, which everybody saw coming, but nobody moved to avert. Trotsky once wrote that the ruling class of his day were tobogganing towards a cliff edge with their eyes closed. Today, they are doing it with their eyes open!
We stated in February that “this pandemic will not truly be over until the population of the entire planet is vaccinated”. In fact, it might already be too late. The virus might now have become endemic, like seasonal flu: a permanent spectre hanging over our lives with which we will have to coexist. This was not inevitable, but a consequence of capitalist mismanagement, foisted upon future generations.
Capitalism has proved, time and again, that it is organically incapable of dealing with a global crisis of this magnitude. All the technique and expertise exist to bring the pandemic to an end. But private property and the nation state are monstrous impediments to fighting COVID-19 effectively; which would require global cooperation, and the open sharing of resources for need rather than profit.
The only way to ensure any sort of return to normality is to combine the fight against the pandemic with a battle to overthrow the rotten capitalist system, before it drags humanity even further towards barbarism.