In capitalist society we are encouraged to believe that our health and wealth depend on individual endeavour. The market can meet all of society’s needs.
Society is set up so that the only organisations capable of producing vaccines for Covid19 are privately-owned and run pharmaceutical companies.
In fact, with more public investment and research there might have been at least partially effective treatments already available when Covid-19 was identified.
As I wrote in Solidarity 534, the threat of zoonotic diseases has long been identified by the World Health Organisation. Covid-19 is in fact the third novel coronavirus outbreak thought to have originated in bats.
The first was SARS, identified in November 2002. It spread to 26 countries, and had a high death rate of one in ten. Fortunately it did not become a pandemic (spread everywhere), probably because of mutations in the virus.
The MERS outbreak was contained. The more widespread epidemic in recent years was “swine flu”: a quarter of the global population were infected within a year. But, fortunately the death rate from swine flu was only one in 5,000.
The death rate from Covid-19 is currently estimated to be one or two in 100.
Those three recent coronavirus outbreaks led to research, and that research has enabled more rapid progress in the development of a Covid-19 vaccine. The US biotech company Moderna has announced a vaccine is now ready to test, though it is likely to be a year before it is widely available.
The SARS coronavirus is thought to share 80-90% of the genetic code of Covid-19, and is close enough to Covid-19 that the related animal modelling for SARS has been used for Covid-19 research.
Despite that, there has been no vaccine developed for any coronavirus. Dr Peter Hotez, in Texas, in 2012 developed a SARS vaccine that was ready to be tested. But, he says, the funding for SARS research dried up.
He believes that had the SARS vaccine been commercially developed it could have provided cross protection to cover for Covid-19.
This is a recurring problem. An ebola vaccine was developed but not licensed. It was found to be close to 100% effective, but was not developed to the point where it could be used until a year into the epidemic, which killed 11,000.
That led to Cepi (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) being formed to try to address the issue of vaccine development. Cepi has funding from several countries and from philanthropists.
The EU revamped an international treaty to commit countries to develop their capacity to manage infectious diseases in 2007 - but today none of the countries signed up are meeting the treaty’s requirements. Without an immediate large-scale threat to life, there is no profit to be made in developing vaccines, medications and research that may help with future outbreaks.
The actions taken since the Covid-19 outbreak began demonstrate that it is possible to have international collaboration, with rapid effect: but the workings of capitalism mean that comes only at the point of crisis.
Humanity can be and should be better prepared to manage pandemics in future. That requires organising social and economic life on the basis of the needs of humanity, rather than of short term profit.