Covid-19 vaccine distribution is a global disaster

A woman in a headwrap and medical mask walks past a sign reading
On April 8, in the midst of India’s second deadly wave of Covid-19 infections, a Mumbai vaccination center is out of stock. PHOTO: Francis Mascarenhas / Reuters
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“It’s like putting a Band-Aid over a gaping hole,” said Andrea Taylor of Duke University, discussing the rich countries of North America and Europe giving their own citizens Covid-19 vaccine boosters before the rest of the world gets their first shot.

Covid-19 is a global pandemic. It respects no national boundaries and will continue to spread and mutate if it is not brought under control everywhere. Keys to control are several very effective, universally available, vaccines. Instead, Taylor’s statement exposes vast disparity on a global scale. Inequality is a solvable problem but don’t expect it be solved under capitalism. Instead of making vaccines universally available, manufacturers are just doing what they do best: profit regardless of who lives or dies. Governments around the world that want to lock in vaccines shovel money to for-profit manufacturers in complex commercial agreements. Public money funded the vaccine research, then the product was turned over to private corporations to produce and sell back to governments to distribute. It is impossible to tell how many 200-foot yachts or 100-room mansions vaccine sales have funded.

Science, for profit. The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that 31 vaccines have passed Phase 3 clinical trials and are ready for human use. Another 184 are in development. That so many effective vaccines have made it so far with such speed is a testament to talented scientists across the globe.

But the WHO’s unspoken goal is to ensure that scientific discoveries can be patented and remain in private hands, not to protect the world’s health. The lucrative Covid-19 vaccine distribution is just one example. In most cases, scientific discovery begins in public universities and medical institutions. But the private sector controls almost all the production and distribution. Their so-called public-private partnerships bring products to market and collect the profits. Examples include the Oxford University/AstraZeneca contract in the United Kingdom or the National Institutes of Health/Moderna arrangement in the U.S.

By the end of 2021, leading vaccine manufacturers Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech will realize at least $70 billion in combined revenues mostly driven by Covid-19 vaccines. And, in China, Sinopharm and Sinovac are also in it for the money — despite China’s impressive domestic vaccination campaign and its pledge to donate 2 billion doses to the world in 2022.

Vaccine supplies go to the highest bidders. The U.S., European Union, United Kingdom and Canada have spent over $100 billion so far on vaccine manufacturing and distribution as well as purchases of related supplies. And, they have bought up most of the supply of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson/Janssen, and AstraZeneca vaccines.

The haves and have nots. The U.S. has partially vaccinated 60% of its population, but the rest of the Americas are far behind. One tragic illustration. Guatemala paid for the Russian Sputnik vaccine before acquiring the ultra-cold storage capacity needed to preserve it, which put the doses at risk of spoiling. Guatemala has vaccinated an estimated 2% of its population. The right-wing government used vaccine-earmarked money to buy military equipment to put down an indigenous-led uprising. Protest leaders have stated it was, in part, against government corruption that did little to help the poor or stop the pandemic.

Wealthy countries of greater Europe, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, are well over 60% vaccinated. But Romania has vaccinated just 20% of its population.

In Asia, affluent Singapore has plenty of money for vaccines and has vaccinated 70% of its residents. But in the Philippines and Indonesia, only 11% and 10% of the population respectively, have been fully vaccinated. In Vietnam, just 1.5%.

In India in late spring the Delta variant was spreading at a breakneck pace and coroners had to burn bodies in temporary crematoriums in parking lots. The situation is improving but only 30% of its 1.3 billion people have been partially vaccinated.

And there is no greater tragedy than in Africa, where the people of 47 out of 54 countries have received zero vaccines. Zero!

The WHO recognizes this inequity and warned of it from the beginning of this, and previous, epidemics. But it is controlled by the very economic structure that is causing the problem. On paper, “COVAX” (an alphabet soup of organizations in including the WHO) seeks to ensure equitable vaccine distribution throughout the world. But in reality, it is a boondoggle founded at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the richest of the global elite gather annually. The miserable statistics show that COVAX is only effective at protecting its masters.

If there ever was a case for truly cooperative, public research, and equal public manufacturing and distribution of vaccines, this is it. The human beings this global pandemic has infected, hospitalized, and killed are the workers and poor people in every country. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical giants have already made enough money off this disease to vaccinate every person on the planet. This grows more urgent as capitalism continues to destroy ecosystems so the next pandemic is probably already in progress. (See “How environmental destruction fosters epidemics the world over.”) The profit system got us in this crisis, but we can’t expect it to get us out.

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