Vaccine nationalism: a capitalist disorder

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags into its second year, it continues to expose and intensify the contradictions of world capitalism. The madness of vaccine nationalism clearly demonstrates that a system based on private property, and the division of the world into antagonistic nation-states, is not equipped to deal with a viral threat that has no respect for borders, profit margins, or narrow nationalist interests.

By hoarding and squabbling over vaccines in a race to immunise their own populations first, the richest countries are risking countless lives and costing their economies trillions of dollars. Meanwhile, the virus continues to circulate and mutate in poorer countries, risking the emergence of new, more transmissible, and deadlier strains.

Not all in it together

We are constantly told that the pandemic is a global threat, and we are all in it together. You would think that world leaders would therefore commit all their resources, set aside their immediate concerns and collaborate to fight this common enemy.

As Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director of WHO, cautioned in August: “We need to prevent vaccine nationalism... Whilst there is a wish amongst leaders to protect their own people first, the response to this pandemic has to be collective.”

In fact, as we have previously reported, the advanced capitalist countries rushed to secure deals with private pharmaceutical manufacturers for vaccines, well before clinical trials were even concluded.

These imperialist powers were all itching to restore economic normality, and outcompete their rivals on the world stage. And because several candidate drugs were undergoing tests throughout 2020, western countries diversified their risk and pre-ordered a variety of different drugs, in case any of them proved ineffective.

The result is that countries like Britain, the USA and Canada; and leading EU nations like Germany are sitting on hundreds of millions of surplus vaccines. In some cases, this is because certain vaccines have yet to be approved in particular territories, like the AstraZeneca jab in the USA.

But some countries (particularly in Europe) are struggling to shift their surplus due to administrative incompetence and vaccine scepticism from the public – stoked by misinformation, mistrust in the establishment, and mismanagement of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, poorer countries, unable to negotiate deals directly with Big Pharma, were pushed to the back of the queue. The result is that countries with just 16 percent of the world’s total population have secured 60 percent of the world’s supply of vaccines.

While the advanced capitalist countries aim to have vaccinated their populations by the summer, 90 percent of people in poor countries are unlikely to get a single dose this year.

world Image pixabay90 percent of people in poor countries are unlikely to receive a single vaccine dose this year / Image: Pixabay

The mRNA-based products developed by Pfizer and Moderna (which are over 90 percent effective after two doses) will go almost exclusively to rich countries in the west. These companies have resisted all urging from the likes of the World Health Organisation, NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and member states of the World Trade Organisation like India and South Africa to relax patent protections or make their vaccines open-source, in order to provide the world with cheaper generic versions.

As a result of their ruthless profiteering, Moderna and Pfizer are looking at sales forecasts worth $18bn and $15bn in 2021 alone. This is nothing short of blood money.

“The poor wait in line and die”

Meanwhile, the British-based company AstraZeneca, which pledged to sell its vaccine at cost to the west (capped at €2.50), charged twice as much per dose to South Africa, Africa’s worst-affected country.

As justification, it explained that high-income countries “have invested in the [research and development], hence the discount on the price.” This is despite the fact that 2,000 South Africans participated in clinical trials in 2020, offering up their bodies as testing grounds for a vaccine, for which their public purse must now pay top dollar.

The UN-backed COVAX programme was developed to provide poorer countries with a vaccine supply, but it is at high risk of failure due to a lack of funding and the refusal of the USA to participate under former president Donald Trump.

Even though current president Joe Biden is now on board, he has enacted new export restrictions on materials for vaccine production in order to protect the American supply chain. This is despite warnings from the WHO that gaps in the supply chain are behind many of the supply shortages afflicting vaccination campaigns.

Rest assured, Trump may be gone, but it is still ‘America First.’

COVAX currently faces a major funding shortfall in 2021 and currently has a very modest goal of issuing 2bn doses by the end of 2021, a fraction of its target population. It was recently dealt another blow after the Serum Institute of India (its biggest contributor) announced a de facto ban on vaccine exports due to a surge in infections in the country.

Despite the multilateral COVAX programme being in a parlous state, western countries are selling some of their surplus to allies and trading partners who have no issues sourcing or paying for vaccines, rather than offering them directly to poor countries. For example, the European Union has exported 34m doses to Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Hong Kong.

Then we have especially sadistic examples of vaccine nationalism, like the case of Israel, which gifted a surplus of Moderna vaccines to countries that agreed to move their embassies to Jerusalem, like Hungary, the Czech Republic and Honduras, but has refused to provide any to occupied Palestine.

When questioned on this, the Israeli Health Minister sneered that Israel had no obligation to vaccinate the Palestinians, and (in a comment equal parts cruel and bizarre) asked whether the Palestinians had any obligations to look after dolphins in the Mediterranean!

Fatima Bhutto (writer, and granddaughter of murdered Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) summed up the situation succinctly in the Guardian:

“It was the hyper-capitalists who spread the plague, got rich off the vaccine, and now will heal comfortably, first in the queue for the best vaccines that they don’t even want. The poor who struggled to eat and survive, lockdown after lockdown, will wait in line and die.”

Europe and Britain: shots fired

The fiasco over Europe’s sluggish vaccine rollout, and the EU’s protectionist spat with Britain and AstraZeneca over limited doses (which we covered last week) continues to escalate.

On Thursday, EU leaders met at an online summit to discuss new export restrictions to countries that already have an adequate supply of vaccines. In her opening address, Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen pointed out that the EU had already exported 21m vaccine doses to the UK, and there was a need to protect Europe’s supply.

Europe Image Socialist AppealThe threat of banning exports of vaccine doses has once more opened up divisions inside the European Union / Image: Socialist Appeal

The restrictions build on rules established after the first AstraZeneca dispute in January, which previously allowed the EU to suspend exports of vaccine suppliers that had not met their contractual obligations. Now, the bloc will be able to halt exports even if targets are being met. Clearly, Britain was in the crosshairs.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted that he did not want a tit-for-tat protectionist struggle. And in a blistering attack on his successor, ex-EU Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker said the EU should refrain from waging a “stupid vaccine war” with Britain. But this is exactly where things are heading, with each side accusing the other of vaccine nationalism.

The EU remains well behind on its vaccination targets; and so far, AstraZeneca has cut its predicted shipments by three-quarters.

Especially galling for Europe are the fact that AstraZeneca plants and components developed in the Netherlands and Belgian have been making their way to Britain, while shipments from the main British plants have slowed to a trickle. Export bans have now been imposed on these European plants.

It is clear that AstraZeneca massively over promised, given its contractual obligations to Britain not to export any vaccines until its orders for the NHS are fulfilled.

While the contract was negotiated in secret, there is talk of a “punishment clause” should AstraZeneca fall behind on its commitments to Britain. This explains why it is unwilling to divert any of its UK-made doses. The company has nevertheless pocketed billions in public money that the EU spent on pre-orders.

EU leaders aren’t bothering to conceal their frustration. Philippe Lamberts, co-leader of the Green group in the European Parliament, said bluntly: “AstraZeneca treats us like a piece of shit”.

The European Commission became deeply suspicious that AstraZeneca was concealing large stockpiles of vaccines within Europe that were destined for Britain.

This led to a farcical situation when the Italian Carabinieri raided a factory near Rome on the EU’s orders. While they did indeed find 29m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the company claimed these were awaiting “quality control”, and were intended for EU member states, and countries in the COVAX scheme.

All this drama is starting to backfire on AstraZeneca as well, which despite its much celebrated “heroic” role in the vaccination campaign, is simply another profiteering Big Pharma firm – with some very dubious business practices.

astrazeneca Image Marcho Verch FlickrFollowing one debacle after another, the share price of AstraZeneca has tumbled by a fifth / Image: Marco Verch/flickr

The circus in Europe was followed by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases criticising AstraZeneca for providing a “misleading” analysis of its clinical trials, which seem to show a slightly lower efficacy than initially suggested.

The cumulative effect of all this is that the company’s stock is down by a fifth, and there is talk that the CEO might be forced to resign. With export bans from Europe now on the agenda, the company is under immense pressure to break its contractual arrangement with Britain – which is precisely the intention behind the EU throwing its weight around.

Myopia

At root, the clash between Britain, AstraZeneca and the EU is political in nature. The EU is suffering the indignity of watching a post-Brexit Britain vaccinate half of its adult population already, while struggling with its own rollout.

The rabid nationalists in Number 10 have wasted no time in gloating at Europe’s expense. Health Secretary Matt Hancock boasted that pharmaceutical companies should base themselves in Britain in future, rather than a protectionist EU, because: “in the UK you can export anywhere in the world — we’re never going to put a stop to that.”

As ever, these repulsive hypocrites are in no position to brag about anything, given the Tories’ criminal mismanagement of the pandemic, which has claimed three times more British lives than the Blitz in World War Two.

Still, bitterness with the hubristic Brits was obviously a factor in the groundless suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine by 17 EU nations for two full weeks over (unproven) associations with blood clots. In retaliation, Johnson and the Tories are making every effort to defend the British-made AstraZeneca vaccine as part of their ongoing patriotic ‘culture war’.

It is a testament to the myopia of these bourgeois politicians that such petty disputes are raging while Europe faces a new surge in infection rates, including in countries that previously avoided the worst of the pandemic.

Hungary, Montenegro, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Bulgaria have entered the 10 worst-hit nations in the world, with Slovakia and Poland in the top 25. This third wave is largely due to the spread of the so-called Kent variant of the virus, which mutated in Britain and spread to the continent over the winter period, during which the Tory government dithered about enacting a new lockdown.

Britain, for its part, has already seen one of the worst death rates in the world and isn’t out of the woods by any means. With the Tories already considering their options in terms of allowing foreign travel during the summer, history stands to repeat itself if the virus cannot be brought to heel on both sides of the channel.

All these ladies and gentlemen are throwing up new trade borders at precisely the moment when open sharing of resources, expertise and vaccines is most needed. While they bicker, ordinary workers on both sides of the channel are dying, as the pandemic is dragged out needlessly.

EU: a house divided

Aside from antagonism between Britain and Brussels, the so-called European Community is being torn apart from within by vaccine nationalism.

Despite new export controls being pushed by the likes of von der Leyen, and French President Emmanuel Macron, political leaders from Germany, Belgium, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands pushed back on Thursday. These countries are all deeply involved in supply chains for vaccine production, and their economies stand to lose heavily from trade restrictions.

Far from a united front, the EU leaders are hopelessly divided. Before the summit, there was already plenty of disquiet among member states over uneven access to doses.

According to an investigation by the New York Times, the European Commission allocated doses to its member states, proportionate to population, out of its joint agreement with Big Pharma companies.

Many EU countries, particularly those with larger and/or harder-to-reach populations, and weaker economies, sought after the AstraZeneca vaccine to keep costs down. The wealthier member states had a preference for the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. This led to informal arbitrage in which countries would swap their vaccines for their preferred choice.

When the EU ran into its supply disaster with AstraZeneca, this caused a major problem for countries that had traded their Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. These were largely amassed by the richest member states, which also went above and beyond their allocated doses by securing separate, direct deals with pharmaceutical companies on the side.

For example, Germany struck a side-deal with Pfizer-BioNTech (one-half of which is German), for an extra 30 million doses in 2021.

This caused rage and accusations of hypocrisy from poorer EU nations who (correctly) pointed out that Berlin had led the way in terms of securing a joint agreement for the bloc, then used its financial clout to hoard millions of additional vaccines for itself.

In an attempt to smooth things over, Brussels arranged for 30 percent of an additional 10m vaccine doses purchased from Pfizer (in a profitable development for the latter) to be issued to member states struggling to contain the virus.

But this was leapt on by the reactionary, and fiercely anti-EU Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who objected to his country being left out of the agreement.

Austria’s vaccination rate is actually slightly above the EU average, and Kurz is clearly exploiting the situation to whip up an internal attack on Brussels, issuing a joint statement against the decision with leaders from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia and Latvia. In doing so, he is pursuing his own narrow agenda at the EU’s expense.

The lofty ideals of free trade, democracy and globalisation have devolved into a grubby protectionist scramble, while demagogic, right-wing nationalists exploit Brussels’ diminished standing for their own gain. Far from the European community, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, it is every man for himself.

All this merely shows up the EU for what it is: a bosses’ club, already in terminal decline, in which any semblance of unity is jettisoned when the chips are down.

Russia, China and vaccine diplomacy

With the western imperialist countries embroiled in vaccine nationalism, rival powers are engaged in a different game. As the US and Europe hoarded their supplies and erected new trade barriers to protect them, China and Russia shipped millions of Sinovac and Sputnik V vaccines to Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Between the two of them, they have supplied 800m doses to 41 countries.

Additionally, Russian and Chinese companies have been willing to strike licensing deals to allow manufacturers in countries such as Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia to partly or fully produce COVID-19 vaccines locally at low cost, in stark contrast to western companies that jealousy defend their intellectual property.

The extreme hypocrisy of the west is exposed when western commentators sneer at China and Russia’s vaccine policy, while they themselves are opposed to giving any real relief to poor countries. In reality, they are demanding millions of people should die, rather than see their own influence over these countries undermined.

Of course, this vaccine diplomacy is not a humanitarian gesture by Beijing or Moscow. First and foremost, they want to be recognised as the people to turn to in the face of public health crises and pandemics, which are likely to become more frequent in the future.

“From now on we’ll look favourably if a Chinese company comes and says: we have a good vaccine for diphtheria or polio or hepatitis,” said Najwa Khoury-Boulos, a professor of infectious diseases, who advises the Jordanian government on the pandemic. “We may not change what we buy, but we’d look at it with more respect than before.”

China has also rolled its vaccination campaign into its One Belt, One Road initiative, using summits in the Middle East and Africa to offer preferential access to vaccines alongside investments in highways, ports, 5G grids and renewable energy, creating new avenues and markets for Chinese capital.

There is a geopolitical agenda here. China is expanding its influence in countries that have not been able to secure doses from companies like Pfizer or AstraZeneca. In other words, they are filling the void left by the vaccine nationalism of the US and the leading European nations. This is also a means for China to break out of the trade war, which the EU and US are waging against it.

China has tested its vaccine and struck deals to supply it to countries like Brazil, right in the US’ backyard. This was arranged after the terms Pfizer asked of Brazil, including surrendering state assets as collateral against the cost of lawsuits in the event of side effects, proved too onerous.

Meanwhile, following the AstraZeneca catastrophe, Russia has been pressing into Europe with its Sputnik V.

vacnat image In Defence of MarxismThe various vaccines are being used as a geopolitical football to extend the influence of imperialist powers including by the use of limited vaccine passports / Image: In Defence of Marxism

The Italian-Swiss pharmaceutical company Adienne in Lombardy announced the first production agreement to manufacture it from July. A full-blown political crisis has erupted in Slovakia, with prime minister Igor Matovic saying he is prepared to resign after his decision to purchase Russia’s vaccine plunged his coalition government into turmoil.

There were even rumours that deals had been reached with companies in Spain, France, and Germany (pending its approval in the EU) to manufacture Sputnik V in the heart of the EU in order to make up the shortfall from the dispute with AstraZeneca.

This would have been a tremendous blow to the EU’s standing as a world power. The possibility was hastily shot down by Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, who heads the EU executive's vaccine task force, who stated: “We have absolutely no need of Sputnik V.”

Nevertheless, the EU is under immense pressure arising from the present crisis. In order to save its economy and maintain political stability, the EU needs more vaccines. But getting vaccines from Russia – vaccines which would come with demands for a softening of the approach of the EU towards Russia – would pit it against the US, which seeks to isolate Russia internationally.

Geopolitical football

This crisis has been exacerbated by the severe impact of the pandemic on Europe and the USA. Whereas China, for example, has bounced back relatively quickly, and is posting economic growth again. This creates some elbow room for it to use its surplus vaccine supply as a diplomatic instrument, rather than having to hoard every dose for its own population.

In an assertion of strength, China has resumed visa processing for foreign visitors, but only if they have been injected with Sinovac – effectively excluding most of the West, where the vaccine has not been approved.

This kind of soft power could be part of an attempt to pressurise North America and Europe to approve China’s vaccine. But with the EU and Britain discussing the idea of vaccine passports to allow persons to travel freely, one can imagine a scenario where competing powers use selective vaccine approval to limit foreign travel in yet another protectionist struggle.

It goes without saying that life-saving vaccines should not be a geopolitical football. There should not even be multiple vaccines that ultimately serve the same purpose. The current situation is a testament to capitalist irrationality and waste.

Under a global socialist system, a single vaccine could have been developed and distributed to the entire world, rather than a host of products being sold on the open market, and exploited to suit the interests of competing capitalist powers.

A glimpse of what is possible can be seen in Cuba, which has refused to purchase any vaccines from Big Pharma companies. Instead, it is putting a domestically developed candidate vaccine, Soberana 2, through stage three clinical trials.

The country is confident it will have enough doses to vaccinate its population by the summer, with surplus to spare. It has stated this vaccine will be free for anyone at the point of use: including all foreign visitors arriving at Havana airport.

And this is all despite continued western sanctions and the most severe economic crisis since the special period in the 1990s. Even in a deformed workers’ state, we see the clear advantages of a planned economy over a capitalist economy when it comes to facing a public health crisis of this nature.

You cannot have immunity in one country

We have stated before that the ‘us first’ approach by the advanced capitalist countries is a self-defeating exercise. The virus does not care about national borders. Immunising a handful of rich countries will not stop the virus from circulating, mutating and returning in the future in a more virulent form.

As the WHO has warned: “Truly, no-one is safe until everyone is safe.”

Setting aside the catastrophic loss of life that will drag on and on until this pandemic is under control worldwide, on a broader scale, vaccine nationalism doesn’t make sense even on a capitalist basis.

study commissioned by the ICC Research Foundation found that the global economy stands to lose $9.2 trillion if governments fail to ensure poor countries have access to COVID-19 vaccines. As much as half of these costs would fall on advanced economies.

To offer another example, it is estimated that a $27.2bn investment on the part of advanced capitalist countries – the current funding shortfall facing COVAX – would generate returns as high as 166 times the investment. $27bn is a literal drop in the bucket compared to the trillions states are already spending on propping up their economies.

The problem is that the degenerate political representatives of the bourgeoisie are not thinking about human welfare, or even the health of the capitalist system in the long run, but only their immediate interests: their careers, and the short-term profits of the capitalists behind them.

This has been their mindset from day one of the pandemic, which is why so many of them refused to take effective lockdown measures early, instead aiming to protect their economies over human lives, ultimately failing on both counts.

Moreover, capitalism is constrained by the nation state: a rotten and outmoded institution that is exerting a terrible impact on the human race, by scuppering any possibility of international cooperation.

vaccine Image Christian EmmerA section of the capitalist class are resigning themselves to the idea that they might never end the pandemic. This isn't inevitable. Under a socialist, planned economy it would be possible to pool the world's resources to speedily vaccinate the global population / Image: Christian Emmer

Coupled with the private interests of the profiteering companies who control the means of medical production, the workers of the world remain trapped in this nightmare while the bourgeois leaders defend their resources and trade barbs.

We have already warned that the scandalous failure of capitalism to deal with this crisis raises the prospect of the coronavirus becoming endemic. Sections of the bourgeoisie are ready to accept this new normal, as an article published in Bloomberg entitled ‘We must start planning for a permanent pandemic’ states:

“Consider two alternative evolutionary paths. In one, a virus becomes more severe but not more transmissible. It will cause more disease and death, but the growth is linear. In the other path, a mutating virus becomes neither more nor less virulent but more contagious. It will cause increases in disease and death that are exponential rather than linear…”

“If this is the evolutionary trajectory of SARS-CoV-2, we’re in for seemingly endless cycles of outbreaks and remissions, social restrictions and relaxations, lockdowns and reopenings. At least in rich countries, we will probably get vaccinated a couple of times a year, against the latest variant in circulation, but never fast or comprehensively enough to achieve herd immunity…

“[W]e must also be realistic. Resilience demands that we include this new scenario into our planning.”

This startling defeatism reflects the capitalists’ inability to get a handle on this situation. But a permanent pandemic is not inevitable: with proper, coordinated lockdown measures, economic support for workers, and an effective vaccination programme, we could bring this disaster to an end.

We must nationalise the Big Pharma companies. Their research – funded by the public purse – should become public property. The necessary factory capacity for the rapid creation of enough doses, glassware, syringes and refrigeration facilities must be obtained through expropriation of existing facilities. Production must be ramped up and an internationally coordinated plan of rapid, global vaccination implemented. But for this to happen we must take the handling of the pandemic out of the hands of the capitalists and their political representatives. Only the working class in power can achieve this through a world socialist federation.

This pandemic, and governments’ response to it, have tested the capitalist system to its limit. The result has been death and deprivation on an appalling level, the richest countries totally sidelining the poor and consigning them to their fate, and a reckless pursuit of self interest by world leaders.

Vaccine nationalism is an indictment of the system under which we live. We require a society based on internationalism, solidarity and the fulfilment of human need. For this to be achieved, it is imperative that capitalism is consigned to the dustbin of history.

Join Us

Join the International Marxist Tendency and help build a revolutionary organisation to participate in the struggle for socialism worldwide!

In order to join fill in this form and we will get back to you as soon as possible.