Our latest edition is out in print and online now. Subscribe today and start reading.

Big Pharma’s Profiteering Led to the Omicron Variant

For months, medical experts warned that leaving large areas of the world unvaccinated would make new variants inevitable. But for Big Pharma, profits come before public health.

Fewer than one in ten health workers have been vaccinated, while more people have received a booster in the UK, per head of population, than have had their first shot in Africa. (Daniel Schludi / Unsplash)

A dangerous new COVID-19 variant has been predicted for many months. Experts told us repeatedly that leaving large areas of the world unvaccinated and unprotected makes new variants almost inevitable. But Big Business was put in charge of who got vaccines and who didn’t, so the rich got more than they needed, while the poor got nothing.

The global vaccine rollout has not been so different to how one of Britain’s imperial governments would have handled such a crisis two hundred years ago: a heavy dose of racism, combined with the idea that the market should decide who lives and who dies in the world.

Boris Johnson fits the role perfectly. While those at the sharp end of vaccine inequality have been demanding a different way of doing things for well over a year, an incompetent British prime minister, educated at the country’s most exclusive school, tells them that they really don’t understand what’s in their own best interests. Then, as now, people may die in their millions, but nothing can shake the arrogance of our rulers that their way is best.

Even in the face of a variant which threatens to undermine the very vaccines themselves, Boris Johnson told the nation on Saturday night that we should be proud of our contribution to the global inoculation program. The problem, he said with typical imperial arrogance, was nothing to do with the amount of vaccines available, but a product of vaccine hesitancy. Proof, he might as well have said, that there’s no point in giving Africans anything as important as modern medicine, as they have no idea what to do with it. Better to leave it to us.

As so often, Johnson’s remarks have little basis in reality. South Africa, the country which, thankfully, recognized and warned the world about this variant, has only been able to fully vaccinate 24 percent of its population. That’s high by the standards of southern Africa. While Botswana and Zimbabwe have managed to vaccinate around 20 percent each, Malawi and Zambia have fully vaccinated a mere 3 percent of their people.

Across the continent as a whole, the picture is even bleaker. Fewer than one in ten health workers have been vaccinated, while more people have received a booster in the UK, per head of population, than have had their first shot in Africa. The notion that there are plenty of vaccines everywhere is clearly ludicrous.

It’s true that South Africa has, within the last week or so, received a large batch of doses, and said it has enough right at this moment. Rather than sitting on huge quantities of doses which they can’t immediately use, as UK and most other rich countries are doing, South Africa said they would be more helpful elsewhere. That does not mean that they have been swimming in them for months, or that they will be in three months more. In fact, at the height of South Africa’s last deadly surge, vaccines actually being produced in the country were being shipped to better vaccinated Europe and North America on the instruction of Johnson & Johnson.

And here we arrive at the heart of the problem. “Leaving it to the market” in the global economy means handing decisions over who lives and who dies to enormous corporations. Rather than labeling the dangerous new COVID-19 strain Omicron, it’s been suggested we should call it “the Pfizer variant.” That would, at least, contain some honesty as to where the blame for our current predicament lies.

Here, the problem is not, by and large, incompetence. The problem is that there’s money to be made, and lots of it. Leading vaccine producers Moderna, Pfizer, and BioNTech are now raking in $1,000 every second on their COVID vaccines. At least nine people have become new billionaires since the beginning of the pandemic, thanks to the excessive profits these corporations have made on their COVID-related monopolies. Moderna’s CEO become much wealthier just this last weekend, as news of Omicron variant sent their stock spiraling up yet again.

These profits owe little to the social usefulness of those accruing them. The vaccines weren’t invented by the corporations which currently produce them. Moderna’s vaccine was invented entirely thanks to the US government, AstraZeneca’s thanks to British public and charitable institutions, and Pfizer’s vaccine was created by a biotech company backed by the German state. But in a world where medicine is manufactured by a small handful of corporations in a few countries, that knowhow was then privatized, leaving Big Pharma to decide who to sell to and at what price.

It gets worse. Thanks to a global trade agreement known as TRIPS, pushed in the 1990s by a former Pfizer CEO, these corporations also decide who gets to produce, where, and how much. Which is why, more than a year into this pandemic, we are still producing a fraction of the doses we could make.

Twelve months ago, India and South Africa, backed by most countries in the Global South, called on the world to waive these patents for the length of the pandemic, on products, like vaccines, which could bring the pandemic to an end. Pushed by the left of the Democratic Party, even President Biden backed the call in May. The argument was that this would allow the world to mobilize all spare manufacturing capacity to produce COVID-related medicines and equipment. We could have produced billions of extra vaccines by now, except that European governments, including the UK, blocked the proposal.

In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) set up a special body into which it encouraged governments and companies to submit any intellectual property and knowhow related to the pandemic. From there they would be able to share that information with the world, turning medical knowledge into a true public good. To date, it only has one submission, a diagnostic tool which was submitted by the Spanish National Research Council last week. Big Pharma sneered at the idea, with Pfizer calling it “nonsense.”

Perhaps the greatest irony of the Omicron variant is that its arrival forced the postponement of the World Trade Organization summit this week — the very body which oversees the trade rules preventing the scale up of vaccine production. At that meeting, Global South countries were again going to make another push for a waiver, while Britain, Switzerland, and the EU were preparing to defend Big Pharma and refuse to accept the need for change.

So obsessed is Britain with the Pfizer-shaped hand of the free market that the government was pushing an alternative proposal to end the pandemic. It included — you guessed it — more trade liberalization and even more market — lowering tariffs, promoting the deregulation of services, and otherwise closing the space which countries have to respond to this or indeed future pandemics and making it harder for countries in the Global South to nurture their own pharmaceutical industries.

But there is some hope. Fed up with the games of countries like Britain and Germany, Global South countries are fighting back. Backed by the WHO, South Africa has set up an “mRNA hub” which aims to research the cutting-edge technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and produce medicines directly, as well as sharing this technology with the rest of the world. Although Pfizer and Moderna have, shamefully, refused to share their recipe, the hub is going to try to mimic the Moderna vaccine anyway — and produce it without permission.

Given mRNA’s revolutionary potential to inoculate not simply against COVID-19, but to produce vaccines or treatments for HIV, cancers, malaria, and more, this holds out the promise of prizing vital technology out of the hands of the profit-obsessed Big Business, to create a very different medical research system.

So the battle underway goes well beyond this pandemic. COVID-19 has forced the world to question whether our health care is a right to be enjoyed by all regardless of wealth, or a commodity to be traded on financial markets for profit. In fact, the rules of the global economy — effectively a system of monopoly capitalism — will not allow us to deal fairly with many of the serious questions we face, from climate change to the threat to our human rights posed by the ever-powerful Big Tech lobby. In this sense, the fledgling experiment in building a Global South pharmaceutical system carries lessons for the type of future economy and society we need to build. And the broad-based movement for a “people’s vaccine” shows how people can be galvanized to fight for such change.

Doubtless Boris Johnson will continue to pontificate about the virtues of free market capitalism on the world stage. But he can’t disguise the reality of the COVID vaccine rollout around the world, now labeled “vaccine apartheid” by many. If Britain continues to stand in the way of a more humane and rational system, countries will not keep talking forever. They will simply start to do things differently. And they deserve our solidarity.