Fight for a “peoples’ vaccine”

Posted on July 12, 2020


There may yet be a “storm”, a “perfect storm” or a series of “peaks” in Covid-19 infections before a vaccine emerges that may keep this virus at bay. And the major victims will be older working people whose immune systems were often compromised by a lifetime of malnutrition and harsh living and working conditions.

But the advent of a vaccine should rouse working people the world over to ensure that, at least in this regard, the basic human right to healthcare is observed. Because, without a fight, that universally agreed right will continue to be largely ignored.

The reason for this is that healthcare is a massive moneymaking machine behind which stand among the most profitable corporations in the world, the pharmaceutical companies. This is a business sector where bribery, corruption and other malpractice in the pursuit of ever greater profits is well known.

And such companies often act in collusion with governments that support their endeavours. A major offender is the United States, that has already indulged in an obscene Covid-19 bidding war for protective equipment and the the coronavirus treatment drug, Remsivir.

As a result, concerns are being expressed, not about whether or when a Covid-19 vaccine will be available, but how much it will cost. It was for this reason that, on May 14, more than 140 world leaders and experts, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, issued a call for any vaccine developed to combat Covid-19 to be a “peoples’ vaccine”.

This vaccine should be patent-free, mass produced and available to all at no cost. The call followed the passing in the US senate of the massive $2 trillion coronavirus Bill. Following lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry, clauses guaranteeing affordability and access were removed.

But the US administration already had in place a deal struck with leading biotechnology company Regeneron: the federal government agreed to pay 80% of the costs of developing and manufacturing coronavirus treatments. But there was no requirement that the final products be affordable.

If history is anything to go by, the cost of drugs and treatments produced by such companies, is usually exorbitant. They are either paid for by governments to be given — at low or no cost — to taxpayers who need them or by individual citizens who can afford them.

Yet in many cases, drugs and treatments are first developed by scientific workers in universities and other public institutions, before being passed on the companies for final testing and manufacture. Or else, as in the case of Regeneron, the state provides the bulk of funding directly to the company.

Regeneron is now in the final phases of testing an “anti-body cocktail” for possible use against Covid-19. And this week the company’s share price received a boost when it announced that it had received $450 million from the federal government to manufacture and supply the drug. Clearly investors think there is money to be made.

But when and wherever a viable vaccine for Covid-19 is developed, it should be available to be manufactured in the most cost-effective way and provided free to all. If this means ignoring patents, then so be it.

In South Africa, we have established capacity and the expertise to produce our own — generic — versions of needed medicines. If we can do so at lowest cost then we must do so.

This is the “peoples’ vaccine” fight that must be taken up by the labour movement and by working class organisations and their allies everywhere. Let us get agreements in place now that any remedy for Covid-19 be available free, to everyone.

Posted in: Uncategorized