“The union movement needs to organize to assure that all workers get vaccinated, the only road to stop COVID-19 once and for all,” Róger Calero, Socialist Workers Party candidate for mayor of New York, told the Militant June 14. “They should run union-organized vaccination programs in every city and explain why it’s in the interest of the working class to carry this out. As I campaign, I urge everyone to get vaccinated.
“The starting point of the bosses and their government is to maximize the profits of the pharmaceutical, hospital and insurance companies,” Calero said. “They view the vaccines as private property, not a scientific conquest that should be placed at the service of humanity as a whole. This means people in the weaker capitalist countries, and especially in semicolonial Africa, Latin America and Asia, won’t see substantial vaccination for years, if ever. It’s an anti-working-class outrage and proves once again that the capitalist ruling families are morally unqualified to rule.”
Pfizer reported in May that they expect to rake in at least $26 billion off their vaccine this year. Pfizer bosses predict the profit margin on the drug’s sales would be in the high 20% range. Company chairman and CEO Albert Bourla boasted he was “extremely proud” of the way the company has begun 2021.
Pfizer already holds the exclusive patent on the highest-selling drug ever — the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor — which has generated some $125 billion since it was first marketed. Pfizer fought for years to prevent generic, and less expensive, versions of the drug from being produced. When Watson Pharmaceuticals’ generic version was finally released, Pfizer got a cut of its profits on every pill.
Pfizer, Moderna and the other capitalist pharmaceutical companies have patented their vaccines, preventing manufacture and distribution of them worldwide. While this helps assure monopoly profits, it sentences millions to disease and death.
In the development of vaccines for past pandemic scourges, some medical researchers have refused to patent their discoveries, making them available for all. Jonas Salk developed the first vaccine for polio. When he was asked who owned the patent, he replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
The U.S. government helps bosses reap maximum profits, even if it puts people at risk. The vaccine rollout by Johnson & Johnson has been marked by neglect for care and safety in production, forcing the company to destroy millions of doses. At the beginning of June when millions of doses were set to expire and would have to be destroyed, the U.S. government stepped in with a helping hand, and simply extended the vaccines’ expiration date by six weeks.
“Our unions need to fight for workers control of production. This is the only way we can gain the power to prevent the bosses’ disregard for our safety and to expose their business secrets and take charge ourselves of how things are made,” Calero said. “Nothing could be more important in today’s pandemic.”
Imperialist powers seize vaccines
Pfizer’s Bourla claims they’re doing everything possible to make their vaccine available worldwide. “We share the mission of COVAX and are proud to work together so that developing countries have the same access as the rest of the world,” he said in January.
But this flies in the face of what they’ve actually done. They’ve put the bulk of their efforts into driving highly profitable sales agreements with the rulers in the U.S., U.K., other imperialist governments and with EU officials. Their claim of world humanitarianism is “one of the great public relations triumphs of recent corporate history,” Richard Kozul-Wright, a director of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, told the New York Times.
COVAX is a project of the World Health Organization, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and funds from a number of imperialist governments. It promises to get vaccines out to 190 countries, including 92 it says are “lower income.” However, they have had difficulty finding enough available doses to make a serious dent. Most approved vaccines have already been bought up, including big hunks of future production. By March, the rulers in Washington, for instance, had bought up doses for 750 million people — three times the country’s adult population. COVAX says it hopes to distribute 1.3 billion doses to the 92 developing countries by the end of 2021, but this will leave the vast majority of people unprotected.
Washington has made it a condition that in donating vaccines to COVAX, the U.S. rulers must have final say over what countries could receive them, concerned more about its political and economic sway than arresting the pandemic.
By mid-February, 75% of all vaccinations had been administered in just 10 countries, a substantial proportion in the U.S., while 2.5 billion people in 130 countries worldwide had not received a single dose.
Two different class approaches
“There are two different class approaches to the vaccination effort today,” Calero said. “One is based on ensuring the profits of the ruling capitalist families in the imperialist countries. The other is advanced by the Cuban people and their socialist revolution, which concentrates the country’s social resources to develop and administer vaccines to every single person in the country and to the peoples of any country who ask.
“Despite the U.S. rulers’ punishing economic war against the Cuban people, they’ve developed their own vaccine,” he said. “As of June 13, over 2 million Cubans have gotten at least their first shot.
“Cuba’s medical and scientific accomplishments are only possible because working people there made a revolution, taking power out of the hands of the capitalist rulers and their imperialist backers in Washington,” Calero said. “They provide an example of the road forward for working people everywhere.”