Worldwide problem concept. Photo: Jernej Furman/cropped from original/CC 2.0, linked at the bottom of the article Worldwide problem concept. Photo: Jernej Furman/cropped from original/CC 2.0, linked at the bottom of the article

Big pharma profits from disaster, as capitalism shows its inability to act in the public interest, argues John Clarke

The experiences of the last few months have demonstrated that capitalism is well suited to producing global pandemics while it is unable to respond to them effectively and humanely. Certainly, the development of industrial agriculture and the destruction of habitat have ensured that the world is at risk of pandemics like the present one.

However, once the coronavirus began to spread, the lack of preparations for dealing with such an episode and a reluctance to take the measures of lockdown and physical distancing that were urgently needed, ensured levels of infection, sickness and death that could have been prevented. Boris Johnson’s now infamous ‘herd immunity’ debacle is but one example of this.

Months later, the refusal of the most neoliberal regimes internationally to take necessary containment measures, still results in horrible and needless suffering and death.

The pandemic, moreover, has been unleashed on us after several decades of neoliberal transformation. Poor and exploited countries lack the necessary health and social infrastructure to deal with the spread of the virus and are unable to provide for masses of people suddenly denied the means of working.

Even in rich countries the pathway of the pandemic has moved along lines of class based and racial inequality that define these societies. In Toronto, where I live, it is reported that ‘racialized and lower income communities in the city are disproportionately affected by the novel coronavirus’ and that ‘Black people and other people of colour make up 83 per cent of reported COVID-19 cases while only making up half of Toronto’s population.’

Pandemic Profits

To these considerations, we must add the fact that the profit motive hampers efforts to treat those made sick by the coronavirus and to find the means of protecting or vaccinating populations against it.

A world reshaped by the priorities of the neoliberal order, with its austerity agenda, just in time production methods and massive global inequality, was glaringly unready to meet the need for personal protective and other medical equipment that the pandemic generated.

Where economies based on democratic planning could have adjusted rapidly to meet such needs, the stultifying profit motive impeded at every turn efforts to shift productive priorities.

When it comes to the urgent need to develop and distribute medications used in the treatment of people sickened by COVID-19 and the quest to develop a vaccine, the health and survival of tens of millions of people is put at risk by the insatiable profit needs of Big Pharma.

An instructive example of this is to be found in the US, with its privatised healthcare system. Expressing ‘that particularly American brand of incompetence and greed,’ the pharmaceutical company Gilead has gouged up the price of Remdesivir, ‘one of the few drugs that has been shown to be effective in treating Covid-19.’

Despite the fact that it costs less than $10 to manufacture a dose of the medication, the company will charge $390 for a patient with government insurance and push that up to $520 for a private patient. This means a typical five-day course of treatment will cost between $2,340 and $3,120.

The usual excuse that Big Pharma and its apologists put forward is the cost of research and development for new medications but the clinical trial that developed Remdesivir was funded by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Indeed, research has shown that every one of the 210 new drugs approved in the US between 2010 and 2018 benefited from publicly funded research.

The pandemic inflicts death and suffering on populations across the world but ‘far from viewing all of humanity as being “in this together,” Big Pharma and its lobbyists see this disaster as a golden opportunity.’

Capitalist countries that are home to some of the leading pharmaceutical companies, like the US, the UK, Switzerland and Japan, have worked to have language removed from a World Health Organisation (WHO) resolution that stressed the right of countries to override patents during a health emergency.

This harkens back to the 1990s, when South Africa faced the devastating impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic with an acute lack of affordable drug treatments. Out of this horror, WHO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) was belatedly amended and the ‘Doha Declaration’ acknowledged that governments could override ‘intellectual property’ rights during a health emergency. Big Pharma and its state enablers considered this a major defeat and have worked long and hard to undermine the provisions of the Declaration.

The pharmaceutical lobby’s counterattack has, very predictably, focused on the old refrain that its disgusting and reckless greed must be satisfied in the interests of the ‘spirit of innovation.’ “We have never needed innovation so much as now, and this is probably the worst possible time to weaken intellectual property,” the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) declared recently.

If there is to be any level of adequacy in the provision of treatment and vaccination during the present global health crisis, Big Pharma expects charities and governments to handle that side of things, while it makes a killing out of the pandemic.

Sadly, while many governments don’t go as far as the US and its accomplices in facilitating the obscene enrichment of the pharmaceutical companies, there is a general reluctance to place any decisive limits on them. While the World Health Assembly resolution did ultimately reference the Doha Declaration, it settled for a ‘voluntary patent pool’ for COVID-19 related medications.

Medical NGOs have pointed out that the pharmaceutical giants are under no obligation to pool their patents and that there is no guarantee that it will be possible to manufacture generic copies during the crisis period, no matter how dire the situation may become.

The logic that has been accepted by the great majority of governments and by many liberal advocates is that the capitalist market is the only viable route to the development of effective treatments. This is a false and harmful conclusion, drawn at the worst possible time.

Hoarding Vaccines

The pandemic has continued to play out along the fault lines of global inequality and this is reflected in the ongoing effort to ensure the richest and most powerful countries grab the largest possible share of access to potential vaccines. Not surprisingly, the Trump Administration has been a particularly glaring culprit in this regard.

Trump has shown no hesitation in pushing for a reckless reopening process at great human cost in the US but, obviously, an effective vaccine would be the best way to ensure a return to unhampered economic activity and he intends to get his hands on the lion’s share when it becomes available. 

The US has, then, agreed to pay Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE $1.95 billion for 100 million doses, at $20 a dose, of a vaccine they are working to develop, with an option to buy up to an additional 500 million doses.  The value of the shares of both companies rose by about 5% when the news of this deal broke. A Bloomberg analyst commented that, “If this vaccine prevents disease after one use, we calculate a windfall of more than $15 billion revenue for Pfizer….Need for repeated use would be the game changer.”

The Trump Administration has also signed a deal worth up to $2.1 billion with Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline. The money will ‘go toward clinical trials, scaling up manufacturing and purchasing 100 million doses of the vaccine.’ Deals have also been struck with AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Novavax as part of the US government’s Operation Warp Speed, which is devoted to having effective vaccines widely available by early next year

Truly, the opportunities for unprecedented profit making that this global health catastrophe has brought to Big Pharma lends new relevance to the concept, put forward by Naomi Klein, of ‘disaster capitalism.’

Coronavirus deniers and anti-vaxxers will no doubt point to the ugly spectacle of Big Pharma’s present feeding frenzy as evidence to support disordered conspiracy theories but the pandemic is all too real and the need for effective medical intervention in the face of it is utterly pressing.

However, the preservation of public health and effective responses to the spread of the virus need to be based on something very different from the profit motive that dominates at present. The fight is to ensure that treatments and vaccines are distributed and provided according to the needs of populations and not for the enrichment of corporations.

At the same time, responses to the pandemic must be based on global solidarity and not the priorities of the elites within the richest countries. The insatiable greed and inhuman plans of the pharmaceutical companies must be challenged and defeated.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.