Pharma bosses, US gov’t fight over patents, millions lack vaccines

By Terry Evans
January 17, 2022
Striking sanitation workers picket Republic Services in Chula Vista, California, Dec. 29. Union fight to get workers vaccinated would strengthen labor and struggles against bosses’ attacks.
Militant/Sylvia HansenStriking sanitation workers picket Republic Services in Chula Vista, California, Dec. 29. Union fight to get workers vaccinated would strengthen labor and struggles against bosses’ attacks.

“All working people should get vaccinated, including getting booster shots. This is in the interests of strengthening the unity and fighting capacity of the working class,” said John Studer, Socialist Workers Party national campaign director, Jan. 5. “Our unions must lead this fight. This will advance our struggles against boss attacks on our wages and working conditions, and for building solidarity with all those struggling against the exploitation and oppression of the capitalist rulers.”

“U.S. Companies Are Thriving,” boasted a Jan. 1 Wall Street Journal  headline. Big capital borrowed big sums in 2020 and are now reporting some of their best ever financial results, with fewer bankruptcies among large capitalist ventures and the stock markets at near-record high levels. Especially profitable are vaccine monopolies Moderna and Pfizer, which anticipate combined sales of more than $52 billion in 2022. 

The bosses are demanding more, targeting their workers to boost profits, which has led to a growing number of lockouts and strike battles. And sharp price hikes — especially for food, housing, gas and other essentials — are driving our real wages further down. On top of this, workers bear the brunt of the “you’re-on-your-own” response of bosses and their governments to the latest rise in COVID-19 infections.

With some 62% of the U.S. population vaccinated, the less virulent, fast-spreading Omicron mutation is proving less fatal than past strains. But rising infection rates and government-imposed mandates have exposed once again the incapacity of the capitalist rulers to provide the health care workers need. Home test kits disappeared from store shelves, and government promises to mail them to people’s homes is nowhere in place. Testing centers are overwhelmed with huge lines and long waits to get results, even though many bosses demand workers produce negative results. 

New York City authorities ordered ambulance crews to stop taking people with “influenza-like illnesses” to hospitals, but to simply leave them at home. 

Liberal commentators and politicians blame our problems on “the pandemic,” covering up for the inability of the for-profit capitalist system to provide for human needs worldwide. The rapid discovery of effective vaccines — a conquest for humanity — was never intended by the bosses and their government to ensure vaccination of the world’s population as swiftly as possible. This is the only way to minimize deaths from mutating strains of the virus. Instead, control over the vaccines was used to boost profits of the top-dog pharmaceutical bosses and tighten their grip on markets at the expense of their rivals. 

The major capitalist powers — especially the U.S. imperialist rulers — cornered the world market, leaving billions of toilers in the semicolonial world in the lurch.

Health care is a working-class battle

Moderna bosses are waging a fight to prevent three scientists from the government’s National Institutes of Health from being named as co-inventors of its highly-profitable mRNA vaccine — the company’s only product on the market. The government uses the dispute to blame the company for holding up needed licensing of the shot worldwide and getting it to many other countries where vaccines are scarce. But hoarding by the U.S. government has fueled the shortages. 

Over a year after immunization programs were first rolled out, only about 51% of the world’s population is fully vaccinated. These are largely in the advanced capitalist countries, as well as in China and Russia, which use their own shots, with results that have been less effective. That means close to 4 billion  people are not protected. 

The owners of Moderna, Pfizer and other vaccine manufacturers have refused to waive patents and take steps to share their formulas so vaccine production can be ramped up around the world. 

This is the opposite course to that taken by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, who discovered the two vaccines used to effectively end polio in the 1950s. They both refused to seek patents that would have put barriers in front of their use worldwide. 

The United Nations World Health Organization promised to deliver 2 billion doses throughout the world by the end of 2021. But hampered by capitalist hoarders, like Washington, it made good on less than half of that, shipping out only 907 million doses by Dec. 30. 

Decades of plunder by imperialist powers, alongside exploitation and corruption by local capitalist rulers, has resulted in minimal or no health infrastructure in countries across Africa. Half the countries on the continent have administered less than 50% of the doses they have received. In Nigeria, where only 2.1% of the population are fully vaccinated, the government had to destroy 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine Dec. 22, after they expired.  

WHO now predicts it will take at least until August 2024 to vaccinate 70% of people in Africa. 

Cuba’s socialist revolution

One government in the world has an opposite approach. As a result of workers and farmers making and defending their socialist revolution, the government in Cuba acts on what working people need. 

Despite an unrelenting U.S. embargo aimed at blocking all sources of revenue to the island, the government there developed three effective vaccines and  ensured they were distributed. By Dec. 31, 86.5% of the country was fully vaccinated, with many more having begun the series of three shots. Daily death rates have plunged. 

The program is not enforced with mandates, as in the U.S. It is delivered freely all across the island and given voluntarily by the country’s national health system, backed by thousands of volunteers. This is a powerful example of what is possible when working people see the government as their own. 

Cuba has more doctors per population than any country in the world, and has sent 2,000 medical volunteers abroad to countries hardest hit by the pandemic. On Dec. 29 the Mexican government authorized the use of Cuba’s Abdala COVID vaccine, which is already exported to Vietnam and Venezuela. 

The Iranian government is mass producing Cuba’s Soberana vaccine. But before WHO will approve these vaccines, they insist the Cuban government must further document proof of their effectiveness — despite their well-known successful use in Cuba and growing use elsewhere. Cuban officials say they will submit the paperwork WHO requires. 

Since the earliest days of the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s, the Marxist leadership of the revolutionary movement in Cuba has treated health care as a human right. After the conquest of power in 1959 medical treatment ceased being a commodity to be sold at a profit and was made available to all.

Cuba’s vaccination program is a source of immense pride to the Cuban people and a powerful example to workers and farmers worldwide of what we can accomplish when we take political power into our own hands.

“As we fight against the attacks of the bosses and their government in the U.S.,” the SWP’s Studer said, “workers and farmers here will increasingly look to the revolutionary example of Cuba for a road forward here.”