by Nof Azulay, Socialist Alternative national committee

On 4 May, a Coronavirus Global Response International Pledging Conference took place with state leaders from Japan, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, UK, Canada, Norway, Jordan, Israel, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and the European Commission. The conference aimed to raise £6.5 billion from governments and foundations to invest in the research into and development of a vaccine for Covid-19.

Noticeable by their absence were leaders from the US and China, the two largest pharma markets in the world. As in both countries there are several companies working on a vaccine, this means there can be no genuinely global cooperation on this issue, as the race and the competition to find a vaccine continues. The lack of coordination by countries throughout this crisis – with chaotic and contradictory policies applied by different national capitalist governments – speaks to the era we live in.

In such a severe health crisis, when there is an urgent need to find a vaccine and other treatments for Covid-19, it would only make sense to have a global collaboration. But capitalist governments being willing to work together is not the only thing required to achieve this. Such collaboration would mean the complete sharing of data, research conclusions, as well as practical collaboration. However, under the capitalist system – in which pharmaceutical companies are among some of the largest profit-making private companies in the world – the race to find a vaccine is driven by power, prestige, and, most of all, profit. This has been reflected in the fact that over 115 companies are currently working solely to find a vaccine, each hoping to be the first to ‘cash in’ and desperate to do so before their rivals. There is therefore a direct financial disincentive for such companies to collaborate – lest they risk being beaten to the finish line.

US and China rivalries in race to find a vaccine

The profiteering interests of the pharma companies were strikingly exposed by Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services Secretary in Trump’s administration. When he was asked about the affordability of a vaccine he said “we can’t control that price cause we need the private sector to invest”. Basically he was defending the interests of the pharmaceutical companies to make profits out of one of the worst health crises of our times. No wonder, Azar himself is a former pharmaceutical lobbyist and executive.

Trump also showed that he wants a US monopoly over the discovery of a vaccine. It was reported in March this year that he offered over a billion dollars to the German bio-pharma company CureVac to secure the vaccine “only for the United States”. In a country where health insurance is private and over 35 million have lost their health insurance during a pandemic, this actually means a vaccine first and foremost for the US wealthy.

Throughout this crisis Trump showed lack of a serious approach. From downplaying the virus and cancelling funding to WHO- to injecting ‘disinfectant’ and promoting use of antimalarial drugs with dangerous side effects. Now he urges states to reopen the economy despite horrendous figures of infected patients and covid deaths.

Xi Jinping’s administration is not any better. The outbreak could have been brought rapidly under control, preventing the development of a pandemic, if it weren’t for the Chinese state’s initial covering up of the virus and the persecution of the doctor who tried to warn others.

So far, four companies sponsored by the Chinese government have started trials for a potential Covid-19 vaccine. One of these companies is The Wuhan Institute of Biological Products. It was Involved in a major scandal in 2018 when it was found that faulty vaccines to diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough were used on hundreds of thousands of babies.

A successful attempt to find a vaccine in either of these two world powers , China and the US, raises the question of what this will mean in an era in which the process of globalisation has been thrown into partial reverse and in which inter-imperialist rivalries, centered around the US-China trade war, continue to grow in sharpness. Will the narrow interests of each imperialist power be put aside? All the indications suggest not.

However it’s not just Trump and Xi’s administrations that show a lack of coordination – not to mention outright hostility. There have been other conferences throughout this crisis ending with joint statements and empty slogans. There was allegedly an agreement in the European Council on 26 March on a joint lockdown exit strategy – the chaotic and uneven lifting of lockdowns proves otherwise. There was also an extreme lack of coordination in the distribution of PPE – with different countries outbidding each other for essential items – as well as on the implementation of travel restrictions.

The EU Conference

The money raised in the EU conference will be channeled through Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). However, there was not any clear commitment for mass production or fair and widespread distribution of the vaccine, nor the affordability of it.

Doctors Without Borders have criticised CEPI and GAVI for their funding policies. CEPI originally elaborated on conditions in which pharma companies could get funding. It had included things like sharing vaccine research data and CEPI access to intellectual property of treatments that were developed by its funding. These were later omitted because of pressure from pharma companies’ representatives on the CEPI’s advisory board, such as Johnson &Johnson and Pfizer. Now CEPI simply say they commit to “equitable access to these vaccines for affected populations during outbreaks.” GAVI had also been criticised last year over the subsidies its fund gave to major pharmaceutical companies, without their guarantee to reduce the price of the Pneumonia vaccine. This is while these companies made almost $50 billion in profit from this vaccine in the last decade.

Regarding the attempt to find a vaccine for Covid-19, the Guardian reported that “EU officials said pharmaceutical companies who will receive the funding will not be requested to forgo their intellectual property rights on the new vaccine and treatments”. First it shows public money is used for companies to keep essential and life-saving data private. Second, as there is not one company that has the capacity to produce billions of vaccines in a short amount of time it means this exclusivity will be a barrier to provide the vaccine in the quickest possible time.

Also, despite the so-called concern of some European leaders about vaccination in the neo-colonial world, there are some very worrying figures about deaths as a result of vaccine-preventable diseases. Lack of basic vaccines for diseases like Hepatitis B, Measles, Mumps, Polio, Yellow Fever, Tetanus resulted in deaths of over 2.6 million people in 2017. Just under 20 million infants are not immunised against these diseases.

Finding a vaccine- safety vs urgency

Finding a vaccine is not a speedy process and it normally does not take 12-18 months as some have been claiming. In fact, the fastest vaccine ever made, the mumps vaccine, took four years from the lab research until its approval. There have been vaccines in development over decades without a successful outcome. In fact, vaccines normally take ten to fifteen years of research and only 6% of such projects reach the finish line.

There is a risk that rushing to find a vaccine might result in an unsafe and inefficient product. As professor Lu Shan told the FT: “The fake data is almost systemic… there is so much focus on quick financial returns. When scientists become interested in the financial incentives, they become businessmen and have less impact. They move too quickly.”

The New York Times reported an article published in the journal Vaccines last month. In the article, vaccine developers from NYU Langone Medical Center, propose to use challenge trials – a method which includes infecting the -‘vaccinated’ volunteers with the virus to see whether it works or not. This method was commonly used in early days of vaccine research. Nowadays, it is used only once there are other treatments available besides a vaccine. While that is not the case with Covid-19, such an approach means risking volunteers’ lives.

The lack of data there is over the virus and possible mutations also raises questions over for how long a potential vaccine might be effective for.

Profits over urgent health needs

The lack of pharma companies’ interests in finding treatments to other coronaviruses found in the last two decades has cost many lives.

Every decade in the 21st century had an outbreak of a type of a Coronavirus. In 2002/3 it was the SARS, in 2012 it was MERS and this year Covid-19. Developing a vaccine for one of these types of Coronavirus could have been helpful in developing a treatment for Covid-19. While research was conducted in order to deal with those types of Coronavirus, it was stopped before reaching clinical trials in humans because the scientists involved “tried like heck to get investors or grants” but “could not generate much interest” as the outbreaks had ended. The lack of interest was found to be fatal and is now crucial in this pandemic. As professor Jason Schwartz told the Atlantic “Had we not set the Sars vaccine research programme aside, we would have had a lot more of this foundational work that we could apply to this new, closely related virus”.

A similar attitude was taken towards finding an Ebola vaccine. As Professor Adrian Hill told the Independent in 2014-: “Unless there’s a big market it’s not worth the while of a mega-company… There was no business case to make an Ebola vaccine for the people who needed it most.” In 2019 a vaccine was approved, however the company involved, Merck, said it won’t get involved again in developing a vaccine for new strains of the virus.

We pay – the pharma companies profit

However, while researchers, including those in academic settings, are often dependent on big pharma money for developing medical treatments, much of the most significant research is actually funded by taxpayers’ money. A research study examining funding by the NIH (National Institute of Health), showed the US government invested $100 billion in development of new drugs in the years 2010-2016. Yet Americans pay more on medicine than anywhere else in the world.

But this is not an ‘American issue’, the NHS buys medicine for millions of pounds from pharmaceutical companies selling medicines that were developed through publicly funded research. A report by STOP AIDS and Global Justice Now showed that two out of five of the NHS’s most expensive drugs were developed through using substantial public money. As one of the co-authors of the report describes: “big pharmaceutical companies are ripping us off by taking over drugs developed primarily with public money and selling the drugs back to the NHS at extortionate prices. This is nothing short of daylight robbery of British taxpayers by some of the most profitable corporations in the world”. In the development of a coronavirus vaccine, Johnson’s government has so far invested £744 million that will be given primarily to big pharma.

No trust in the pharmaceutical companies!

Pharma companies have been failing to address the urgent demand for medical treatments. As shown earlier, under capitalism, investment in developing treatments is present only when there is a clear business opportunity. There have also been many cases of drug prices skyrocketing, making treatment inaccessible despite public spending in development of such treatments. In 2015, Turing, a pharmaceutical company, bought a patent for making a medicine that had been on the market for over six decades. The price of the medicine, Daraprim, jumped over night by 5500%; From £11 for one tablet to £609 (!). In the UK, a breakthrough drug for breast cancer produced by Pfizer was initially denied for use in the NHS because of the high cost of almost £140 per tablet. The medicine was later approved as a result of campaigning and pressure from below.

The case of the Ebola vaccine showed that, despite there being an approved vaccine on the market, the pharma companies failed in providing it to the 10 million people in the infected regions during the 2018 outbreak. The failure of the ‘bird flu’ vaccine to arrive to countries who needed it the most, as rich countries “bought virtually all the vaccine companies could manufacture”, shows again the failure of capitalist production to meet urgent health needs.

The dependence of the pharma companies on subsidies from governments raises the question of why a vaccine should be allowed to be produced for profit in the first place. In an article Socialist Alternative published on 24 April we gave the example of Johnson & Johnson signing a contract with the US government to develop a vaccine. J&J’s received just under half a billion dollars from the American tax-payer,which led to a 3.8% rise in the value of J&J’s shares. Yet ordinary workers do not get a guarantee a vaccine will be affordable.

Any serious attempt to address the virus cannot involve profiteering from Covid-19. A vaccine and other medical treatments need to be accessible and free for all who need it. To make sure a vaccine will be accessible and free to all, pharmaceutical companies need to be taken into public ownership under democratic and transparent workers’ control.

There needs to be collaboration and a free to access database without patent restrictions. And there needs to be a democratic, socialist plan for production which can retool the economy to produce the vaccine on the scale needed to protect the world’s population from this deadly virus.

In other words, the task of overcoming this virus in a way that prevents unnecessary deaths of millions is one that requires socialist measures on an international scale. We fight for and defend all reforms which increase the accessibility of medicine and the widest expansion of free healthcare. But the only way to guarantee a future where public health is put before private profit is to build a movement that can replace this crisis-ridden capitalist system with a socialist society- run by and for working-class people.