Governments have financed the Covid-19 vaccines, by subsidies for research and trials and preparing production facilities, by advance orders before it was even known whether the vaccines would work, and by exempting the pharmaceutical firms from risks of court cases if something goes wrong.
The labour movement should demand that governments now requisition the “intellectual property” produced with that finance — i.e. make the patents available to any competent producer. There is already a mechanism for that, set up by the World Health Organisation eight months ago, the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool. Only, as medical lawyer Ellen ‘t Hoen puts it, “the Pool is empty”.
Governments should also requisition vaccine production facilities and expertise to organise their rapid expansion.
The boss of Pfizer has demanded the US government “leverage the Defense Production Act” — i.e. requisition capacity — to get him the supplies he wants. The same principle goes for Pfizer itself!
Production constrained by private profit does poorly at developing vaccines fast. Their development and the construction of production facilities is expensive and risky (some Covid-19 vaccine programs are now being abandoned). Even once developed and approved, vaccines are generally not nearly as profitable as medications which lots of people in richer countries will take daily for many years and for which Big Pharma can extract big prices.
It took many years before the big pharmaceutical firms were pressured into making AIDS medications affordable in poor countries. The labour movement should not allow the same to happen with Covid-19 vaccines.
In fact, we want the full public ownership of the pharmaceutical industry. The issues with AIDS medications and Covid-19 vaccines apply pretty much across the board.
Requisitioning and levelling-up is the only way out of the vicious circle of vaccine nationalism, highlighted by the current UK-EU dispute over Astra-Zeneca vaccine supply.
Vaccines are not the cure-all. Vaccination drastically reduce serious illness and death. That fact, together with the strong evidence that risk of serious illness and death increases hugely with age, underpins the carefully-reasoned elderly-first vaccination schedule designed by scientists. (They explain its advantages over “no, vaccinate me first” cries from rival younger groups).
The vaccines probably reduce transmission to some degree; maybe a lot, but we don’t know. It will be difficult finding out. (If transmission drops in Britain now, is that because of lockdown or because of vaccines?)
We don’t know how long the vaccines’ protection will last. Even with requisitioning, it will take a very long while to vaccinate world-wide. In that time new variants will emerge and could hit countries which have so far suffered less. Maybe the vaccines will be ineffective against some new variants: probably the vaccines can then be modified to catch up, but that will take time. However clumsy and costly lockdowns are, they remain the backstop. The current one in Britain is far from completing its work. New lockdowns will probably be needed, for example in France, where cases have doubled since a full lockdown was eased in mid-December. Even Israel, with the world’s highest vaccination rate so far, has just had its lockdown extended.
The labour movement cannot second-guess the scientists. We can and must campaign for social measures needed to make lockdowns and covid-distancing effective and to minimise their social costs: full isolation pay for all, bringing social care into the public sector, workers’ control of workplace safety, publicly-provided quarantine accommodation for the self-isolating and people entering countries, maintained and better furlough for all.
Social solidarity is central in fighting the pandemic.