Joe Biden Joe Biden. Photo: jlhervàs / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The ongoing debate on waiving vaccine patents so poorer countries can have access tells you everything about capitalism putting profit ahead of lives, argues John Clarke

The decision by the Biden administration to support the waiving of ‘intellectual property rights’ for Covid-19 vaccines, has ruffled feathers in high places while raising hopes that effective measures may be taken to deal with the spread of the virus in poor countries.

Biden’s top trade negotiator, Katherine Tai, issued a statement declaring that, “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.” Given the horrific situation playing out in a number of countries, especially India, it would be impossible to suggest that Tai is overstating things.

Before considering the implications of this move, it is worth stressing the enormity of the global injustice that prompts it. In a situation dominated by the power of wealthy countries and the profit-driven greed of Big Pharma, the term ‘vaccine imperialism’ has come into use. It was reported at the end of March that,

“The US and a handful of other wealthy vaccine-producing nations are on track to deliver vaccines to all adults who want them in the coming months, while dozens of the world’s poorest countries have not inoculated a single person.”

Yet, grossly inadequate healthcare systems in poor countries are unable to cope with the impact of the pandemic and the economic devastation it brings with it is generating unimaginable levels of poverty and hunger. More than a year ago, the UN warned that the Covid crisis would cause global famines of ‘biblical proportions.’

Opposition to the waiver

Even in the face of such an appalling situation, Biden’s move is facing significant opposition. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has come out against it and suggests that giving all drug manufacturers access to vaccine formulas, as the governments of more than a hundred poor countries have proposed, would somehow cause ‘severe complications’ in vaccine production.

The G7 leaders, including Boris Johnson, have been thrown into disarray by Biden’s initiative and their empty promises to ‘ramp up manufacturing around the world’ come up against the obvious reality that this can’t be done expeditiously without the patent waiver.

The major pharmaceutical interests are, of course, doing all they can to protect their profits, regardless of the human consequences. They doggedly deny that their stranglehold on the manufacture of vaccines is impeding its global distribution and, as always, they suggest that, without the protection of their ‘intellectual property rights’, innovation will dry up and the world will be left at the mercy of ‘other public emergencies in the future.’

Biden’s support for a waiver, while it is very significant, is by no means a decisive development. It would also be wise to take a somewhat sceptical view of the initiative coming out of the White House, with its own extensive links to Big Pharma. Tai’s statement only dealt with Covid vaccines and avoided mentioning an earlier proposal from India and South Africa that covered “diagnostic kits, vaccines, medicines, personal protective equipment and ventilators.”

Moreover, Tai also took care to stress that “negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the (WHO) and the complexity of the issues involved.” A lot of very powerful interests with a great deal of influence will be able to considerably delay the waiver, if they are not ultimately able to prevent it.

However limited and fragile this initiative by the Biden administration may be, it is not hard to see the enormity of the global health crisis that has prompted it. The epicentre of that crisis is presently India and, in that country alone, over 20 million people have contracted Covid. Such conditions of rampant infection, of course, create the risk of ever more transmittable and lethal mutant strains. Already, the WHO reports that a highly infectious Indian variant has spread to seventeen other countries.

It is by no means improbable that, out of the death and suffering faced by populations in the ‘Global South,’ strains will emerge that will be immune to existing vaccines. In this terrible situation, it is reckoned that there is a need to at least double vaccine production in order to stand any chance of meeting the need that exists.

A capitalist pandemic

Biden’s call for a patent waiver and the efforts to prevent it from happening, reflect a tension that has been evident in the response of capitalist states throughout the pandemic. Contrary to liberal notions that the state is the honest broker of the common good, under capitalism it is devoted to maintaining the conditions under which exploitation and profit making can proceed effectively. The sudden onset of Covid created a huge problem in this regard. It became necessary to take measures to preserve public health and maintain social stability that went against the immediate profit needs of capitalists.

A totally uncontrolled spread of the virus would obviously create such levels of economic dislocation that governments had to introduce lockdowns and physical distancing measures. Yet, short term profit needs were so pressing a consideration that these measures have generally been delayed too long, inadequately implemented and lifted too soon.

It is abundantly clear that a strategy of elimination, rather than mere mitigation, apart from the fact that it prevents a great deal of death and suffering, makes more sense in purely economic terms. Yet, a serious commitment to an elimination strategy has been the rare exception. Boris Johnson’s infamous ‘let the bodies pile high in their thousands’ outburst may have been exceptionally ugly, but he expressed a tension that has played out across the globe.

Now, a very similar tension has developed over the pressing need for mass vaccination on a truly international scale. If the pandemic is allowed to rage out of control in countries that lack the basic public health and social infrastructure that can contain it, an utter catastrophe will unfold. Even if the unchecked virus doesn’t return to infect the populations of the imperialist countries, the dislocation of the global economy will be ruinous. Yet, Big Pharma and its powerful allies still recklessly refuse to do what is absolutely necessary.

The US ruling class was badly shaken by the erratic course pursued by Trump and the dangerous political forces he stirred up and Biden has been tasked with restoring domestic stability and US ‘global leadership.’ His administration wants to pull the US out of the pandemic-triggered economic crisis. It seeks to restore its damaged credibility with the lesser imperialist powers that are its junior partners. It wants to ensure the stable conditions in which it can effectively pursue its agenda of global rivalry, especially with China.

For all these reasons, it very much wants to get Covid under control. As we have seen with the response to the pandemic, sometimes a capitalist state has to reluctantly protect the class it serves from its own worst instincts and it is understandable that Biden, in his present role, is a little more prudent and far seeing than some of his international counterparts.

A UN-backed report tells us that we have entered the ‘era of pandemics.’ It declares that, “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment.” Well over a year into this entirely predictable global health crisis, after the profits of the pharmaceutical giants have been prioritised and, as the virus devastates poor countries, Biden belatedly throws his influence behind a temporary patent waiver that can’t be put into effect without months of horse trading in the boardrooms of the WHO.

Vaccine imperialism is an indictment of a system that, having created the conditions that unleash pandemics, puts profits ahead of public health and human life and is determined to keep developing nations dependent on the West. In the face of this horrible travesty, Biden’s patent waiver gesture is far too little and very much too late.

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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.