On the anniversary of the first lockdown of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, as candles were lit in the doors and the country mourned 125,000 dead, the Prime Minister was in the mood to gloat.
“The reason we have the success of the vaccine is because of capitalism, because of the greed of my friends,” Boris Johnson reportedly told Conservative MPs, before pleading “forget I said that”.
The timing of the comments was unpleasant in the extreme, as countries around the world struggle to find vaccines, while Britain has repeatedly acquired the doses it needs by bypassing international bodies supposed to guarantee an allocation global fair. But more worrying was the distorted understanding revealed by the remark of what really is behind Britain’s successful vaccine rollout.
Johnson claimed that the vaccine’s breakthrough was driven by “giant corporations that wanted to deliver good returns to shareholders.” But nothing could be further from the truth. The UK government, like other governments, has invested significant public funds in vaccine research and development, bearing most of the risk in the process.
The AstraZeneca jab was actually developed by scientists at the University of Oxford, a publicly funded institution, working with scientists from a variety of backgrounds, many of whom were educated in public schools. These scientists had initially wanted to make their vaccine patent-free, before AstraZeneca entered the scene, effectively privatizing the research.
The vaccines were brought to market thanks to tens of thousands of trial volunteers who risked their health by showing up, not out of greed, but out of a desire to end this pandemic and help their families and communities. . And the rollout is being managed by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), a world-class public healthcare system that, despite market-led reforms in recent years, exists entirely outside the logic of the market.
Greed, however, has prompted the big pharmaceutical companies to privatize vaccines developed with public resources and to patent life-saving drugs, in an effort to maintain a stranglehold on their monopolies. As a result, the pharmaceutical giants sold these doses almost exclusively to wealthy countries, resulting in the UK getting enough doses to immunize its population three times as much.
Even the European Union is struggling to get doses and is now engaged in a bitter war of words with Britain. That’s because Johnson’s “me first” approach, combined with the secret contracts that are a constant feature of Big Pharma-owned drugs, has fueled anger and suspicion. Worse yet, many low- and middle-income countries will have to wait until at least 2023 to immunize a large enough percentage of their population to gain herd immunity.
And what stopped countries in the South from making their own vaccines and instead forced them to wait for the pharmaceutical giants to decide it was their turn? Greed again. The UK, US and EU – home to the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies – have blocked attempts by India and South Africa to temporarily waive patents on COVID-19 vaccines . They argued that a waiver would hurt the “incentives” – or the benefits, in plain language.
All of this is a perfect example of Johnson’s economic strategy – to shift massive public resources into the hands of big corporations and then turn them over with services of vital importance to the public. Increasingly, these contracts seem to be awarded on the basis of proximity to the Conservative Party. Transparency is at best an afterthought, and while these companies do indeed seem to excel at transferring value to their shareholders, they are much less competent to provide public services. The multibillion pound disaster of Britain’s test and traceability system is just one prime example of this.
When it comes to vaccines, the consequences of this strategy are obvious to everyone. If all the vaccines due for delivery in 2021 were distributed equitably, we could immunize 70% of the world this year, ending the pandemic. Greed prevents it. The incompetence of AstraZeneca’s deployment is now helping to fuel vaccine skepticism around the world. And the secrecy of its contracts fosters a dangerous vaccine war between the EU and the UK.
AstraZeneca isn’t the only greedy company in the vaccine race. Many other companies have also happily taken public resources, sold almost all of their shares to rich countries, and now hope for extremely high profit margins. Pfizer is poised to make over $ 4 billion in net profit this year, and Moderna executives are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars based on the company’s stock price surge.
Johnson is quickly emerging as the most vocal proponent of this form of capitalism – an economic model characterized by monopoly power, cronyism, and the transfer of enormous resources from the public sector, the environment and workers to the private wealth of the world’s elite.
The immediate consequence of this is the extension of the pandemic, as the coronavirus is allowed to run rampant in the poorest countries, taking countless lives that could have been saved. But the longer-term consequences will be even more catastrophic: unprecedented levels of inequality, rampant climate change and erosion of trust in democratic institutions.
Greed is not what drove the successful rollout of vaccines in the UK. Instead, it risks derailing efforts to end this crisis. Those of us who want to make sure the world is not only safe from COVID-19, but also from crises of poverty, inequality and climate change, rather than celebrating greed, must find a way to contain it as quickly as possible.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.