Vaccine Imperialism

Intellectual Property Kills

Paul Demarty

As a new wave of Covid-19 rips through many countries, notably India, Argentina and Brazil, it is disconcerting to look on from the vantage point of a country where things are—for now—well under control, with over half the population at least partly vaccinated.

With scientific opinion—and plain common sense—united in the certainty that Britain and the few other rich countries which have had a successful vaccination programme still cannot protect themselves so long as some of the most populous countries on earth are effectively giant Petri dishes for the emergence of new variants of the virus, scrutiny must rightly fall on Britain's failure to aid the global effort adequately. And, while much of the discussion focuses on how many spare vaccine shots are 'donated,' there is a far more serious moral failure on display in the present situation.

That is the matter of the patents on the various vaccines so far developed. Many countries in the global south have pleaded for the patents to be waived temporarily; but the response—from Britain and especially the European Union, where most of the vaccines were developed—has been foot-dragging at best and stonewalling at worst. It need hardly be stressed that every minute's delay means more fatalities; so the interference of pharmaceutical companies and their 'friends' in government amounts to mass murder.

It is not only the pharmaceutical firms who have a hand in this sordid saga. In some ways it began last year, when researchers at Oxford University declared their intention to freely release their vaccine formula, in the hope that it would be made more widely available and also feed into further research. Bill Gates decided to talk them out of it, and thus was born the 'partnership' with AstraZeneca. On the face of it this was a baffling act, as if Gates had decided suddenly to pack in his smug philanthropy altogether and resolved, like Milton's Satan, that "to do aught good never will be our task, but ever to do ill our sole delight."

In the case of another actor in this drama, one finds further prima facie evidence of radical evil. The media industry—as soon as the Biden administration let it be known that a patent waiver was on the table—dispatched hordes of furious lobbyists to Washington to muddy the waters even further. Sure, it would be nice to save a few lives in India, Brazil and wherever else; but big business houses could not risk the far greater evil of people manufacturing C3PO action figures without paying the proper licensing fees, or singing 'Happy birthday' unmolested by Warner Music's lawyers.

Here is Chris Coons, the Democratic senator from Delaware. According to The Washington Post, Coons, "a close ally of Biden, has even invoked the January 6 storming of the Capitol among the reasons to protect patents, saying it revealed the need to unite the country." The paper quotes Coons as saying:

"All of this is a wake-up call for us that we need to have another Sputnik-like moment of reinvestment in American innovation and competitiveness… A central part of being successful in this competition is continuing with our constitutionally created protected-property right of a patent.

The reference to Sputnik presumably made more sense in context—even Chris Coons must be aware that that was the Russians: perhaps he has in mind some bromide about America's triumphs being borne from adversity. There is no Apollo without Sputnik.

His philosophy, then, makes a certain amount of logical sense: it is essentially a reformulation of the ideas of the philosopher, Leo Strauss, who was a major influence on the original neoconservatives, and very much the same sort of thing people are getting from Biden, who ominously sells his major policies as a question of 'competition' with China. If it is coherent, however, it is still a moral scandal: the logic is that Indians must pay for America's national healing with their blood.

It is also straightforwardly absurd. Patents only make sense in the context of private industry; yet the very case Coons mentions as his model—the space race—had as its actors  rival states, and only incidentally involved private companies as manufacturing contractors and so on. If Apollo 11 is the thing to emulate, then the sanctity of patents would be wholly incidental; if top NASA people had complained to John F Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson that patent litigation was interfering with the progress towards the moon landing, then people rather suspect that the offending patent would have been dispatched to oblivion with a flick of the presidential pen.

The story of the Covid-19 vaccines, meanwhile, illustrates the opposite of Coons's point: far from being a 'natural' part of the patriotic furniture—a way to ensure reward for taking risks on research and development—the patent windfall demanded by Pfizer, Moderna and so forth is a strenuously artificial attempt to get paid twice for the same piece of work. Donald Trump's administration, just like the Tory government in Britain, 'incentivised' the production of vaccines—not by the promise of future profits, but by guaranteed payments, even for vaccines that did not in the end make the cut. The Trump administration ploughed $10 billion into the coffers of big pharma. Nobody who truly believed in the power of patent protections to incentivise production would have done so—after all, a successful vaccine would have no shortage of buyers. The scientific marvels undertaken by the researchers could only be done so quickly because some of the ideas involved had long been floating around, but somehow no pharma corporation had ever found the money to invest in them.

There is an important contradiction involved here. As capitalism develops, and technology revolutionises the forces of production, an increasingly important input into the productive process is information. The physical machines themselves, large and small, are commoditised. There is only so much innovation possible in the sewing machine, but one still needs clothes and shoes, and so capitalist firms must compete to meet those needs. They do so in part by optimising information—industrial technique, logistical organisation and so on.

Thus the classic phrase of Marx about the revolution: "the expropriation of the expropriators." In other words, rent-seeking is not a distortion of capitalism, as bourgeois economists think, but a good enough image of its essence. Overthrowing capitalism involves taking back what was stolen from toilers. There is surely no more repellent example of such theft than the abandonment of billions of people to the whims of a deadly Corona virus.

[Source: Originally published  as  "Rent-seeking as mass murder", in Weekly Worker, May 6, 2021. Republished in MR On Line with permission.]

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Vol. 54, No. 5, Aug 1 - 7, 2021