Producing the Vaccine We All Need: Of Patents and Production

The world faces two particularly pressing problems: the first is Covid-19 and the second is capitalism. But thankfully the solutions to dealing with both problems lie within our grasp.

We already know that a number of effective vaccines have now been created (which were largely developed as a direct result of publicly funded research), and we know that having high quality health services that are provided free of charge to all people is essential if we want to reduce the pandemics fatality rate.

Yet if we leave capitalist governments in charge of responding to this pandemic, we will never be able to produce vaccines quick enough to stop the spread of this pandemic, or be able to cater to the health needs of everyone on our planet. Afterall capitalism remains a political and economic system that prioritises the need to make profit before the need to save human lives.

As delusional as they may well be, those commentators who blindly trust in the ability of capitalism to act in the best interests of humanity regularly point out that there is little that can be done about the inadequate quantities of vaccines being produced. They thus point out that even if the patents for the various vaccines were shared with the world, then the world would still remain unable to produce enough vaccines to meet the world’s urgent needs. But they are wrong!

Ignoring the repeated public protestations of the famous patent defenders amongst the billionaire-class (like most notably, Bill Gates), it is worth examining some of the arguments that are being marshalled by scientists who continue to state that waiving vaccine patent rights will increase vaccine production. One scientist who took the time to write an article making this argument writes that even if patents were waived then production would still lag owing to the following problems:

  • a lack of available hardware like for instance the “specialized mixing equipment for the formation of the mRNA lipid nanoparticles”, and
  • a shortage of “key consumable equipment to go along with the hardware” like “filtration membranes” and a lack of “key reagents” needed to create the vaccines.

Yet the scientist understands that these problems are very much related to the profit-motive. He therefore adds that such problems are currently being overcome “via the tried and true method of offering people money to make more”. That is, pharmaceutical corporations will produce more of the materials needed to stop the pandemic killing us if they get enough money to do so! But, of course, this is not the only way to produce more vaccines.

Either way, another problem that is identified is a “shortage of actual [skilled] people to make the tech transfer work” to increase vaccine production. The scientist adds “Moderna, for one, has said that a limiting factor in their tech-transfer efforts is that they simply do not have enough trained people to go around.” Again, the obvious solution to this problem is that more people should receive the training to do this work. This is not rocket science and there are plenty of qualified people working in laboratories all over the world who could be trained to oversee increased vaccine production – something that should really have happened decades ago if we were really serious about being prepared to fight pandemics.

The scientist then highlights that vaccine production remains limited by our capacity for “Filling and capping sterile vials”. He however recognises that this problem is hardly insurmountable and explains that it is nothing that “Time and money” can’t fix. So, the obvious question remains, why hasn’t action already been taken to ensure that industrial capacity had been increased? I say this because right from the start of the pandemic we already knew that we would need to roll out the vaccine to billions of people.

Finally, in terms of deciding where all the extra drug production facilities should be built the scientist states that it is not necessary for every country in the world to be creating their own vaccines. This needless to say is true, and for now, at least, it does seem logical that vaccines should be produced where it is more efficient to do so to do so, on the proviso that distribution should not be determined by the economic strength of any given country. Such a level of economic equality is however next to impossible to instigate under capitalism, which is premised upon inequality. This is why we need to roll-out a more cooperative model of economic and political relations between all countries that puts the needs of human lives before the needs of corporate profits.

To restate the perhaps obvious point: all the present barriers to expanding vaccine production can be overcome, but only if we can agree that allowing capitalist growth priorities to determine global levels of vaccine production makes absolutely no sense. Indeed, while waiving vaccine patents makes sense from a public health perspective, as long as we operate under the illogic of profit-making then there will always exist bottlenecks that limit the ability of vaccines to be produced at the speed we (the ordinary people of the world) need them to be produced at!

It is for these reasons that our planet needs a socialist alternative if we want to stop the spread of this deadly pandemic. If capitalism won’t produce the vaccines our planet needs, then we need to make sure that we take the means of producing everything to do with vaccines for Covid-19 under collective ownership.

This would enable the production of the necessary drugs and technical equipment can be immediately prioritised to protect human health. It would mean democratically run governments would invest in training the necessary staff to enable vaccine production to expand rapidly. It would also enable us to create the necessary global public health institutions that are able to provide free high-quality healthcare to everyone, whether they be rich or poor.

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