The Covid-19 pandemic not only produced the greatest world economic crisis of capitalism. It also exposed many of the system’s miseries. Failures in the health systems, with years of disinvestment in research, hospital infrastructure and personnel. And now, the fight for vaccine patents has come to light, central to the profits of the large pharmaceutical groups, which see in the pandemic, fear, disease and death an enormous opportunity to do business.
By Gerardo Uceda
Almost from the outset, the Covid-19 pandemic was seen as the trigger for two simultaneous crises, the logical and more or less expected health crisis and the other, not so expected economic crisis. But the passing of the first months of 2020 made it clear that both would take on historic dimensions. In the health sector, it showed that the capitalist system, even in the most advanced and richest countries of the world, was going through a chronic crisis, which manifested itself in years of disinvestment in health, from the abandonment of lines of research that could have advanced knowledge about coronavirus, to more concrete things such as lack of health personnel and hospital infrastructure in critical sectors, to cite a few examples. At the other extreme, the economic crisis unleashed is shaping up to be the most important in the history of world capitalism in all its centuries of existence, with paralysis of economies, transportation, millions of workers losing their jobs, companies melting down and a recovery that is far from being foreseen.
It is in this context that one can understand the dispute and even the fight of the big pharmaceutical groups and the imperialist governments to obtain a cure for the disease. Knowing that whoever succeeds could obtain fabulous and extraordinary profits over their competitors. While different therapeutic alternatives are still being tested, it was always clear that the primary objective to first control and then eradicate Covid-19 was to obtain an effective and safe vaccine to prevent infection. And many laboratories from different countries, especially the richest ones, embarked on an unbridled race to obtain the vaccine. As always in capitalism, the primary reason was not the health of the world’s population, nor even to avoid the deepening of the economic crisis in general; they were driven by the desire for pure and simple profit. In record time, less than a year, there are already more than ten vaccines in the world with great possibilities of being successful, 4 or 5 of them already have clinical studies proving their efficacy.
But the problem, instead of beginning to be solved, it could be said that it has just started here. In the last few weeks, together with the slow pace of vaccine production and therefore the impossibility of mass vaccination, in accordance with the expectations generated, a major crisis has arisen, especially in the European Union where Germany, the leading and richest country, cannot explain to its people the slowness with which it is being vaccinated, in the face of a Brexit England with almost 15% of its population vaccinated. To such an extent that an urgent summit was called to deal with this issue where something totally unusual and feared for capitalism was raised, the possibility of expropriation of patents or compulsory licensing of vaccines. Let’s see what this is really all about.
The pharmaceutical patent scam
By definition, a pharmaceutical patent is “the set of exclusive rights granted by a State (generally imperialist) to the invention of a new pharmaceutical product or technology, susceptible of being commercially exploited, for a limited period of time (generally 5-10 years) in exchange for the disclosure of the invention”.
Translated, this means that the imperialist states guarantee their companies that for years they will have the exclusive right to manufacture, distribute and sell a drug or vaccine, on which the companies set the prices they want, without anyone being able to compete with them. In other words, a guaranteed super-profit. Although industrial and especially pharmaceutical patents have existed for many years, it was in the 1990s that, guided by the fear that globalization and the speed of knowledge exchange via the Internet would affect their profits, all the terms and rights related to patents were reinforced and hardened. All the world’s most powerful capitalist governments agreed to protect their national and multinational companies to preserve their profits. But they could not fail to recognize in the papers that in exceptional circumstances this almost supreme right of the companies could be affected and thus patents could be expropriated (i.e. the states could ask the inventor for the formula and the way of manufacture and disclose it to other companies or to the State itself for its manufacture against payment) or grant the license of manufacture for a determined term also for its manufacture by others.
In May 2020, the president of Costa Rica made a first proposal, that given the scope and humanitarian risk of Covid-19, there should be an obligation to share solutions, data and technology for the fight against coronavirus; the first alarms were raised and only 40 countries supported it. However, the crisis without any fundamental solutions continued to progress and South Africa and India are now proposing to the WTO (World Trade Organization) the exemption of patents for all medical tools to treat Covid-19. This caused a great uproar and all the big pharmaceutical companies came out against it, saying that “it was false and dangerous to say that patents or intellectual property are a barrier to collaboration and production of vaccines”, as the CEO of Pfizer said at world level.
The crisis takes a leap
But it was not until a couple of weeks ago that the discussion became public and appeared in the world’s major media. The reason is simple: Germany, the richest country in the European Union, had to suffer the consequences. They had to close schools and stores while vaccination arrived in dribs and drabs due to lack of production. Angela Merkel and her government were then criticized and they are now the promoters of an initiative aimed at expropriating vaccine patents, obviously with the firm rejection and protest of all the major laboratories, starting with the German Biongen itself, passing through Astra-Zeneca, Moderna and Pfizer, but also including the Russian and Chinese states, also vaccine producers who do not want to miss out on the profits.
Thing is that the expectations and propaganda about the rapid procurement and availability of vaccines do not match reality, not even in the most advanced countries of the world. Only a few countries reach more or less acceptable vaccination levels, such as Israel, which has already vaccinated 60% of its population, but with a vaccine that has not been fully tested, then USA with 10% and the United Kingdom with 15%, being the trigger of the German crisis. Far behind are all the European countries and not to mention the rest of the countries of the world, where the availability of vaccines will depend on the money they have to buy them, so that the poorest countries of Africa and Latin America, for example, could be not vaccinating massively for more than 2 years, if we take into account that the most optimistic estimates for the powerful Europe speak of 6-9 months to be able to cover their population.
The future endangered by capitalist ambition
But Pfizer’s CEO’s approach in defense of patents, and therefore the preservation of its profits, clashes with something much more serious and profound than the claims of South Africa, India or even Germany, which seek to ensure the necessary doses in due time and form for their populations and thus be able to return more quickly to normal economic functioning. What is at stake, given the magnitude of this pandemic, is world health, where entire countries or continents remain without being effectively vaccinated, with chronically ill and dead people and the possibility that viral mutations may exist in them that may prove resistant to the vaccines available today and thus generate a vicious cycle that will endanger world health in the future, including that of the advanced capitalist countries. And all this justified only by the profit ambition of the pharmaceutical companies.
Cancel the Patents Now
From Alternativa Salud and the MST in the FITU we have always stated that health is an inalienable right, superior to any private profit. Therefore, for us, medical knowledge, its advances, its achievements in terms of therapeutics, prevention or diagnostic methods, must be the intellectual property of humanity and cannot be protected by any patent or any other mechanism that ensures extraordinary profits and exclusivity of production to any sector. And we say this for all types of diseases from cancer to AIDS, from malaria to cardiovascular diseases. We are against the exploitation of health and disease as a capitalist business.
But in the case of the Coronavirus pandemic, the elimination of all kinds of patents and profit safeguards are more than justified. To such an extent that the WHO and even officials of imperialist countries such as Germany, who see no way out if there is no modification in this sense, began to raise the issue.
In the first place, because of the magnitude and scope of this pandemic that endangers the health, life and economic subsistence of billions of people worldwide. Secondly, because it is false that companies have risked capital and invested years of research, as they claim, to ensure exclusivity. It is common knowledge that it was the States that provided the money in advance for their development, and the public universities that provided the knowledge.
Especially in the case of Russian and Chinese vaccines, where the research and development was carried out in state agencies and have become, to the regret of the pharmaceutical companies, powerful competitors when it comes to selling vaccines in the world. Hence the exaggerated criticism of them.
That is why we are not only in favor of the annulment of patents, but we go further and say that all restrictions on access to medical knowledge regarding prevention (vaccines) and treatment (whether curative or supportive) must be lifted immediately, forming a large worldwide collaborative database of advances, knowledge and experience to accelerate the cure of Covid-19.
Together with this, we demand a worldwide productive reconversion that guarantees the production and distribution to all countries of the world of the necessary protective elements for patient care. We maintain that it is necessary the unification under state control of all public, private and mixed health subsystems to guarantee the equal attention of patients, advancing to a single universal system. Only with measures of this type will it be possible to control and surely put an end to this pandemic. There is no justification based on the profit of capital that can take precedence over the right to health of the world’s population.