What the vaccine debacle tells us about predatory capitalism

The botched COVID-19 vaccination campaign is a great illustration of why our current capitalist system does not work.

A worker is engaged in the production of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a recently approved facility in Marburg, some 90km north of Frankfurt, Germany on January 20, 2021 [File: BionTech/Handout via Reuters]

Vaccines have been a beacon of hope amid a raging coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 2.4 million people and brought world economies to a halt. They have been presented as a remedy that would put an end to the immense suffering – physical, emotional, and economic – caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

But as vaccine roll-out has faltered due to various foreseen and unforeseen circumstances, the light of this imaginary beacon seems to be getting dimmer. As a recent article published in the leading medical journal The Lancet concludes, “new vaccines will mean little to individuals around the world if they are unable to get vaccinated in a timely manner”.

Months after several vaccines were approved for use, vaccination campaigns have been disappointingly slow, and if deployment continues at the present rate, only a few of the world’s richest countries are expected to achieve herd immunity before the end of the summer. Meanwhile, new virus mutations continue to emerge, putting into question the effectiveness of existing vaccines.

Some have put the blame for the vaccine debacle on the cumbersome bureaucracy of governments and on anti-vaxxer sentiments. But the root of the problem lies elsewhere. It has to do with a dysfunctional global economic system propped up by three ideological myths: that the private sector is best at innovation; that unregulated markets are best at managing supply and demand; and that the outcome of globalisation is fair for all.

Amid the pandemic and the botched vaccination efforts, these myths are starting to crumble right before our eyes.

Myth one: The private sector is the best innovator

One foundational myth of global capitalism is that private entrepreneurship is the only effective source of innovation and progress. But Big Pharma has long demonstrated this is not necessarily so.

For decades, vaccines have been de-prioritised by the industry as insufficiently profitable. For example, despite the persistence of deadly outbreaks of the Ebola virus in West Africa, there were no serious efforts to develop a vaccine against it until after the epidemic of 2014. And up until the coronavirus pandemic, companies like BionNTech – which partnered with Pfizer to develop a COVID-19 vaccine – were mostly focusing on the application of the mRNA technology in drugs rather than vaccines.

The swift development of COVID-19 vaccines came only in the wake of significant financial support by governments, combined with massive buyout contracts using taxpayers’ money. For instance, US government agencies gave Moderna alone some $2.5bn to help develop the vaccine and buy doses.

That is, the public sector was a key driver of COVID-19 vaccine development and public funds are used to finance the process. In effect, pharmaceutical companies secured a cost-reduced development and risk-free launch of a new product.

The claim that private companies are best at innovation is further eroded by the fact that at least two state-owned companies, Russia’s Gamaleya Institute and China’s Sinopharm, were successful in developing effective vaccines.

All of this is not to question the efficacy of available vaccines or the devoted work of the researchers who developed them. Rather, it is to point out the fact that privatising the vaccine development effort not only is too costly and exploitative, but it is also inefficient, as it prevents scientists from collaborating and sharing research to come up with the best possible vaccine.

Myth two: The invisible hand of the market is effective

Another capitalist myth is that competitive markets are the best regulators of supply and demand and the best at achieving the optimal distribution of goods. In early 2020, we witnessed the dark side of this fable, as countries started to outbid each other for vital medical equipment, such as PPE and ventilators.

Demand was high across the board, but supply only went to the wealthy few, at the price of many human lives. This is now happening again, as, amid severe undersupply of vaccines, governments are scrambling to secure enough doses for national use.

Israel has achieved its spectacular vaccination rate by paying higher prices for the vaccines. The US is trying to follow suit. Even within the European Union, where a coordinated response and fair distribution of vaccines in proportion to member states’ populations was negotiated, it emerged that wealthier countries like Germany have managed to secure more vaccines for themselves.

If the present situation continues, where the highest bidders can buy as much as they want, even if it is more than they need, supply will continue to fall short of global demand. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called it “vaccine nationalism”, but what it really is is vaccine capitalism. Countries are rushing to outbid each other on vaccines because there is an inadequate supply, and there is inadequate supply because pharmaceutical companies are allowed not to share their inventions with the world.

As Scottish economist Adam Smith has pointed out, any trade secret is a form of monopoly, and in this sense, pharmaceutical patents enable the supplier to impose a monopoly. Keeping vaccines the exclusive intellectual property of companies renders deployment not only too costly, but also inefficient, as it severely limits production capacities.

Myth three: Capitalist globalisation is fair

The third key myth of late-stage capitalism that is now unravelling portrays globalisation as equally beneficial for all. But a cursory look at the global distribution of vaccines shows that this is far not the case.

As Western countries are able to acquire vaccines, albeit at different pace, many other parts of the world have not even started their vaccination campaigns. Even emerging economies – some of which served as the testing ground for the vaccines – are struggling with limited supply.

As a result of this global inequality in vaccine distribution, we are not only facing what WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus has called a “catastrophic moral failure”, but also an inevitable global economic disaster. Economists are already warning that an uneven global vaccine roll-out would be much costlier for wealthy countries than a coordinated deployment of vaccines.

If the current immunisation inequality persists, the deployment of vaccines in wealthier countries can become close to useless. Even if herd immunity is achieved in some countries, persistent outbreaks in others will continue to disrupt travel and global supply chains. One study suggests that if there is no serious global effort for an equitable vaccination campaign, this could cost developed countries $4.5 trillion.

Immunity cannot function as the privilege of the few. Immunised wealthy countries may try sealing themselves off from the rest, but the sustainability of this global apartheid will be questionable and the human cost – surely appalling.

Disaster capitalism breeds disaster

Canadian author Naomi Klein has famously defined disaster capitalism as a brand of predatory capitalism that seeks to extract profit from natural or human-made crises. The fallout of the current pandemic has allowed us to see this idea go further: while preying on disaster, capitalist forces can magnify it and create a new, much bigger one.

In a globally intertwined economy vitally dependent on the movement of workers and complex supply chains, the lack of vaccine coverage for significant parts of the global population means the virus will have ample room to mutate, evade any newly created immunity, and travel far. New vaccines will continue to be developed, but given the delayed and uneven deployment, COVID-19 will always be one step ahead.

This does not bode well for the future of billions of ordinary people whose lives will be disrupted by the virus, but it seems to sit well with the wealthy who are currently making a windfall out of COVID-19 outbreak.

If we are to end the pandemic, save human lives, and prevent economic catastrophe for the most vulnerable, we urgently need to overhaul the mechanisms of disaster capitalism and ensure that vaccines are equitably distributed and anti-COVID measures effectively implemented across the world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.