Lenin identified, among others, a distinctive characteristic of imperialism: “capitalism has transformed itself into a global system of colonial oppression and devastating financial strangulation of the majority’ of the world’s population led by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries.”1
By Daniel Sugasti, translated to English by Carlos Jara
In the midst of the worst pandemic of the century, Lenin’s description of imperialism can be synthesized into a single set of statistics: 60% of the vaccines that have been produced in 2021 have been hoarded by countries representing only 16% of the global population. As of the end of March, 536 million vaccine doses had been administered, 76% of which were concentrated in the ten richest countries of the world.2
Close to 40% of the vaccines that will be produced–we will discuss the question of production capacity later on–are being fought over by 84% of the world population. This means that only one out of every ten people living in poor countries will be vaccinated in 2021. These figures entail genocide on a global scale.
To have developed not one but several safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19 in less than a year is a great victory for mankind. Nevertheless, this scientific accomplishment is not being deployed to help fight the danger that is threatening the world (the pandemic), but rather to enrich a handful of biotech corporations. Vaccines, like everything else under capitalism’s imperial rule, are a commodity available only to those who can afford them.
If we were to apply Lenin’s criterion, what we find is that the entire process of research, production, and distribution of the vaccines is not driven by the motive of providing healthcare, but rather according to the laws of the capitalist market, dictated to preserve royalty fees for the companies situated in “a handful of ‘advanced’ countries” that monopolize the market.
Subsequently, the fight to provide vaccines for all can only be won by defeating capitalism. This anarchic mode of production is the primary reason for why poor and semi-colonial counties receive only a small trickle of vaccines while imperialist nations keep the lion’s share.
The problem begins with production capacity. The biotech companies that have developed the vaccines that are currently being sold have promised to produce more than 3 billion doses in 2021, which would be enough to vaccinate one third of the world population. This is far short of the 70% coverage rate needed to end the pandemic, which would require at least 10 billion vaccine doses.
This shortage has caused a “vaccine war”, an extremely one-sided conflict. Well before testing was completed or mass production had begun, rich countries bought out the majority of the stock being produced in secret deals with the biotech companies.3 The result is that a few countries have enough vaccines to inoculate their population several times over. For example, Canada will have nine doses per capita; the US seven doses per capita, and the EU five doses per capita. At this rate, many countries will not receive their first doses until 2023. When we look at the global distribution on a map, the line between the rich and poor countries is very clear. The line dividing the world into north and south takes on a new, grotesque meaning: it has become the dividing line of a global vaccine apartheid.
This inequality, in addition to being outrageous in and of itself, is an obstacle to fighting the pandemic. It will accomplish little to vaccinate 70% of the populations of a few countries if the virus continues to propagate across the rest of the world. If the virus is not eradicated, it will mutate, creating new varieties that will undermine the vaccines’ effectiveness. This process has already begun. Thanks to bourgeois governments’ refusal to break the vaccine patents and their failure to implement proper social distancing and guaranteed income policies, SARS-CoV-2 has mutated additional “British”, “South African”, and “Brazilian” strains, which are more infectious and potentially deadlier.
The populations affected by “vaccine apartheid” in theory would need to be separated from the rest of the world, an impossible task given the interdependencies of the global economy that require a constant circulation of commodities and workers. “Vaccine nationalism” can seem totally irrational (and it is), but this chaos and disorganization is part and parcel to the logic of capitalism, which without fail prioritizes the profits of the few over the health (and the lives) of humanity and the whole planet.
We need to understand that in the middle of such a global emergency there is no middle ground. Nobody will be safe until everyone has been saved. For this reason, the working classes of imperialist countries need to take up the banner of the global fight against the pandemic.
Break the vaccine patents
But, you could ask, why is there a vaccine shortage? Hasn’t industrial production been developed to the point where we should be able to meet our needs?
Here’s where the patent problem comes into play. There is an imminent need to organize the fight to break intellectual property patents not only for vaccines but for all medicines and medical technologies that are necessary for fighting COVID-19.
The patent system, which is used to “protect” products, allows pharmaceutical companies and others exploit inventions, in this case the vaccines, for 20 years following its creation. It is a legal tool which reserves a monopoly on new technologies, allowing biotech companies to control the rate of production and the price of their products.
The intellectual property laws are the main obstacle blocking the production of vaccines using facilities that are currently idle in places such as Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, India, Egypt, and South Korea among others. To give a sense of how much productive capacity is being squandered, the Serum Institute in India alone would be able to produce 1.5 billion doses per year.
Without this obstacle, we would be able to produce and distribute the vaccine on a mass scale, creating a cheaper vaccine and speeding up availability all around the world.
The severity of the crisis has made even the bourgeoisie of peripheral countries, such as India and South Africa, call on the WHO to break vaccine patents.
A proposal presented to the WHO calls for all members of the WHO to exempt certain vaccines, medications, diagnostic tests and other anti-COVID-19 technologies from copyright law for the duration of the pandemic. More than 100 countries and 370 international organizations, including Doctors Without Borders and Salud por Derecho (Health by Right) called upon the WHO and rich countries to “put people’s lives ahead of corporate monopolies”.4 Thus, the call to break with patent law has even been taken up by a section of the bourgeoisie internationally.
But, as was expected, the proposal was rejected out of hand by the main imperialist powers that are home to the companies that have developed and patented the vaccines. The US, EU, UK, Switzerland, Japan, and Canada, among others, united to maintain a monopoly on the production of antigens, insisting that the legal protections were necessary to incentivize companies to “take risks” and invest in research and development. There were two meetings in February and March, and both times the proposal to cancel patents was rejected. The debate is expected to continue in April.
The pro-monopoly position was not solely defended by rich countries. Brazil, a semi-colonial country currently in the worst moments of its fight against the pandemic, also opposed the measure. This position goes hand in hand with the Bolsonaro government’s genocidal policies, depriving not only their own country but also the rest of the region of access to vaccines, taking into account that Brazil has the industrial capacity to produce millions of vaccine doses.
All of the above applies to the nearly 1,600 other medical treatments to fight COVID-19 complications that are currently undergoing clinical trials. In Brazil, the Butantan Institute of Sao Paulo is developing an injectable antibody serum that may be able to stop the disease’s advance and keep it from attacking infected patients’ lungs. Pfizer is developing an oral antiviral treatment. Roche is working on an IV cocktail based on monoclonal antibodies that could reduce the risk of hospitalization and death by up to 70%. The pharmaceutical companies MSD and Ridgeback are running Phase 2 trials for the oral antiviral molnupiravir, which could block the reproduction of viruses like ARN and SARS-CoV-2.5 All of this is promising, but if we do not do away with patents, the cost will make these new treatments unavailable to any who cannot afford them.
Are the vaccines a victory of capitalism?
Recently, British PM Boris Johnson declared that the existence and success of the anti-COVID vaccines is thanks to “greed” and “capitalism”.6 In reality, the opposite is true. Capitalism limits scientific advances in fields where the bourgeoisie is unable to extract immediate profits. That is why a vaccine against SARS-CoV-1 was never developed following an outbreak in Southeast Asia in 2003. Because that epidemic was controlled relatively quickly, the potential for profit vanished and the world was left at risk of a resurgence of the disease, which finally occurred in 2019. Capitalism is a straitjacket that blocks scientific progress.
On the other hand, claiming that we owe the development of the vaccine to the risks taken on by capitalists is a gigantic lie. The development anti-COVID-19 vaccines was only possible thanks to the investment of massive amounts of public funds. According to an analysis of scientific data by Airfinity, 61% of the money invested to develop vaccines came from the public sector, and only 24% came from private enterprises.7
While the exact contracts between states and biotech companies are secret, we know from the Airfinity report that Oxford AstraZeneca received $2.2 billion, Johnson & Johnson received $819 million, and Moderna received $562 million among other companies.
The development of vaccines against COVID-19 stayed fully within the standard operating procedure of capitalism, where costs and production are socialized while profits and access to goods are privatized. In other words, the costs are public, but the rewards are reaped only by a select few.
AstraZeneca itself has confirmed on multiple occasions that its vaccine development will have no negative impact on its finances, as they “expect that the costs associated with vaccine production will be fully covered by funds from governments and international organizations.8 Nevertheless, their executives have stated that they may end up charging as much as 20% more than the cost of production for the vaccine.9
Without public funding, biotech companies could have claimed that they were taking on financial risks. From their perspective, creating vaccines during a global medical emergency was not profitable in the past. Poor countries need lots of resources, but cannot afford to pay high prices. What is more, vaccines can only be administered once or twice per patient. It is as yet unconfirmed whether COVID-19 will require people to receive annual vaccines like the flu. If that turns out to be the case, the vaccine would become more profitable and the businesses will invest more money into developing them.
Capitalism is not what made vaccines possible, as Boris Johnson claims. Capitalism leeched off of the scientific community to win profits in what many will consider “the deal of the century”.
All while taking millions of dollars of public money, the biotech companies are increasing their own market value. While millions are getting sick and dying, losing their jobs and sources of income, the owners of the biotech companies are getting richer and richer. Although there is some variation in their rate of growth, six of the labs that were leading the development of vaccines reached market valuations of more than $85 billion in 2020.10
This has led to disgusting incidents, such as when Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, who sold 62% of his shares on the day that the company reported the preliminary results of their COVID vaccine. Thanks to his insider information, Bourla took advantage of the predictable rise in stock value and took home $5.6 million for himself.11 A few months earlier, Moderna executives sold large quantities of their stock following their own announcement of promising vaccine set results, at that point still in preliminary stages.
Imperialism’s solution to the vaccine shortage is the Covax initiative, led by the WHO. At least 72 companies have joined the initiative with the goal of vaccinating 20% of the world’s high risk population by the end of 2021. But Covax is clearly insufficient. First of all, it fails to address the key problem: vaccine production. In practice, all the initiative can do is redistribute vaccine surplus from rich countries that are so kind as to “share” with the poor. Covax, like so many other would-be buyers, is forced to compete on the market for the 40% of vaccines that are not being bought app by rich countries. What is worse, it only has $2 billion at its disposal, when it needs $5 billion.
Socialism or barbarism
To stop the ongoing genocide, it is necessary to understand that the working class will not receive a solution to our health crisis for as long as the capitalist class remains in control. To the rich people who can cut the line for vaccines and receive the best healthcare available, the lives of millions of workers are an unimportant sacrifice.
The bourgeoisie’s catchphrase is and will always be “we do not care how many may die, business cannot stop”. This is the inexorable logic of capitalism. The only thing that matters is to continue raking in profits. The rest is unimportant, it barely even counts as collateral damage. The working class, to the rich, is nothing more than cattle to slaughter. There is no middle ground, there is only us and them.
The only realistic and coherent solution to save millions of peoples lives is to eliminate capitalism. This means, among other things, the expropriation without compensation of the main wellsprings of the global economy, to be placed under workers’ control. And, given the pandemic, the expropriation of pharmaceutical companies and the producers of medical supplies takes on prime importance.
The only thing that can save us from the current state of chaos is the application of a socialist program. Only a socialist economy can guarantee high quality public health care. It is urgent for us to seize these institutions, which are currently held by a handful of business magnates, and to put them to work on the basis of an economic plan designed and directed by the working class. For as long as we remain chained to the capitalist mode of production, humanity’s immunization will be a pipe dream. Given the current state of emergency, the fight to break the patents is the number one priority of the working class. The anti-imperialist struggle takes on a concrete form in the fight against the legal obstacles that are blocking the production of vaccines, and thus mass immunization itself.
As we have written elsewhere on this website, there have been very few moments in history when the question of “socialism or barbarism” has been put forward quite so starkly by the global situation of the day. Today we have the choice not just between socialism and barbarism, but between socialism and the systematic extermination of the majority of humanity.
- LENIN, V. I. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Madrid: Fundación Federico Engels, 2010, p. 7
- See: <https://www.swissinfo.ch/spa/coronavirus-oms_oms–se-han-superado-500-millones-de-vacunaciones–pero-a%C3%BAn-hay-desigualdad/46488768 >.
- See https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/28/world/europe/vaccine-secret-contracts-prices.html
- See: <https://www.elespanol.com/invertia/observatorios/sanidad/20201019/ong-limitar-patentes-vacunas-tratamientos-frente-covid/529447460_0.amp.html>.
- See: <https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-56584885>.
- See: <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/mar/23/greed-and-capitalism-behind-jab-success-boris-johnson-tells-mps>.
- See: <https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-55293057?fbclid=IwAR3F8ebgFUxTe-KwoB6b6jN2T9ai7raA7ntRvSNzbteHl2PR6SQJxIO4iw0>.
- See: < https://msf-spain.prezly.com/los-gobiernos-deben-exigir-a-las-farmaceuticas-que-hagan-publicos-todos-los-acuerdos-de-licencia-de-vacunas-de-covid-19 >.
- See: < https://msf-spain.prezly.com/los-gobiernos-deben-exigir-a-las-farmaceuticas-que-hagan-publicos-todos-los-acuerdos-de-licencia-de-vacunas-de-covid-19 >.
- The vaccine: The pharmaceutical companies’ business: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2UHxJpSYloA>.
- See: <https://www.forbes.com.mx/negocios-ceo-de-pfizer-vendio-62-de-sus-acciones-ante-anuncio-de-prometedora-vacuna/?fbclid=IwAR2WlU44J2d1HRcCcqVEEc6Ifv2MluyLRr7Y_ZVaKZtkh0Bms_Zh4a5dRb8 >.