It’s hard to imagine a single event that could make the case for international cooperation more forcefully than a global pandemic. An infectious virus, by definition, has no regard for national politics or borders and, even with the total shutdown of all travel, is bound to threaten people in every country, disrupting daily life and commerce in the process. Virtually everyone — regardless of country, wealth, or occupation — therefore has an immediate interest in reaching global herd immunity as quickly as possible. The sole exception, however, also happens to be the very industry currently at the center of vaccine production: namely, the various for-profit pharma giants that have become household names as untold millions anxiously await their jabs across every continent.
If a global pandemic makes an irrefutable case for cooperation between all nations, classes, and demographics, it also underscores the irreconcilable conflict between the needs of the many and the profits of a small few. Drug companies, after all, would stand to lose billions if their formulae were shared and supply increased, which is the main reason they’re currently resisting efforts to amend the world’s strict intellectual property regime so that vaccine production and distribution can expand. Notwithstanding this greed, COVID-19 has been an unprecedented PR coup for pharmaceutical giants, whose apologists have issued a predictable smoke screen of self-interested bad arguments to justify patent hoarding.
Chief among them has been billionaire Bill Gates who last weekend used an appearance on Britain’s Sky News to explain why the various recipes for vaccines currently held by drug companies should not, in fact, be shared so that production and distribution can increase. Asked directly by Sky’s Sophy Ridge if he thought changing patent restrictions “would be helpful,” Gates answered with a quick and curt “no,” before continuing:
“Well, there’s only so many vaccine factories in the world, and people are very serious about the safety of vaccines. And so moving something that had never been done — moving a vaccine from, say, a [Johnson & Johnson] factory into a factory in India — it’s novel. It’s only because of our grants and our expertise that can happen at all. The thing that’s holding things back in this case is not intellectual property. There’s not like some idle vaccine factory, with regulatory approval, that makes magically safe vaccines. You know, you’ve got to do the trials on these things, and every manufacturing process has to be looked at in a very careful way.”
This is, quite simply, untrue.
As the Guardian’s Stephen Buranyi recently reported, plenty of manufacturing capacity currently stands ready to produce vaccines if given the necessary authorization. A single, relatively small Canadian company, as Buranyi discovered, says it’s capable of producing twenty million vaccine doses for people in the Global South but has been rebuffed by both AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. “If we had started this last year, we could have shipped millions of doses by now,” the company’s vice president John Fulton told the Guardian. “This is supposed to be like a wartime effort, everyone in it together. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.” Fulton is right, and his Ontario-based Biolyse represents only one manufacturer among many equipped with the capacity to produce vaccines if patent restrictions were to be lifted.
He’s also right that the rhetoric of solidarity so ubiquitous at the pandemic’s outset has been largely hot air. Though untold public investment played a key role in the development of vaccines, shareholders in private pharma companies have raked in huge fortunes while rollout has overwhelmingly benefited the richest 16 percent of the global population — many poorer nations not expected to achieve effective vaccination levels for another two years, the most significant reason being inadequate supply.
Gates, who incidentally owes much of his own fortune to monopolistic intellectual property laws, has been more than a passive actor in the pandemic — having, among other things, convinced Oxford University to renege on its original promise of a no-patent vaccine and partner with the profit-driven AstraZeneca instead. Arguably more than any other single figure, the billionaire has mobilized his immense personal wealth and power to ensure that the interests of for-profit drug companies prevail over global public health.
As is already quite clear, it’s a recipe for vaccine apartheid and preventable death: one that will ensure people in richer countries get vaccinated more quickly and supply remains far short of what it otherwise could be. Humanity may be at war with a deadly virus, but one of the chief antagonists in the conflict is the profit mechanism at the heart of global capitalism itself. If that mechanism ultimately triumphs over humanitarian common sense, the pandemic will last longer, countless people will suffer needlessly, and we’ll have monopolist ideologues like Bill Gates to thank.