Whilst big pharma squabble over who gets the lion’s share of the lucrative global market for Covid vaccines, and the brotherly nations of the European Union fall out over their collective failure to match supply and delivery of vaccines to demand, it gets more and more obvious that capitalism is systemically incapable of dealing rationally and humanely with the global pandemic, or with any other of the seemingly intractable global problems confronting modern humanity.
Under the EU vaccine scheme the EU negotiates the purchase of vaccines on behalf of member states, using its collective clout to secure better deals and avoid competition between them. At first blush this sounds like an admirably internationalist approach, the kind of civilised, rules-based behaviour on which Europe prides itself, by contrast to the dog-eat-dog brutalism that reigns supreme across the pond. In practice, however, it turns out that the EU vaccine scheme, to which all 27 member nations have signed up, has failed their populations even more spectacularly than is the case in the US.
In January the Economist contrasted the nearly 5% of US citizens vaccinated with the derisory 1.4% jabbed in Europe. The journalist rubbed salt in the wound, noting that the US, “the uncaring antithesis to the EU’s self-image, has done better than anyone in the bloc” (‘The EU should stop ignoring the vaccine race to try and win it’, 21 January 2021).
Whilst Britain jumped in early and secured deals on vaccine supply, enabling it to sit tight on its own stockpile and steam ahead with vaccinating its home population, the EU arrived late in the game. The EU attacked Britain for hoarding vaccines rather than exporting them, whilst London smugly told Brussels to get its own house in order. The hostility grew to a point where it started to infect the science. Although the EU medical regulator signed off on Oxford-AstraZeneca as good for all ages, some national regulators disagreed. France’s Macron announced that the jab was “quasi-ineffective” for over-65s, whilst British regulators cried foul. France, Germany, Belgium and Sweden all cast doubt on the drug’s efficacy, only later reversing that position. Meanwhile, as geopolitics played football with risk analysis, the home populations were left to draw their own conclusions, a situation in which anti-vax prejudice flourished.
In a move mostly aimed at Britain, the EU started to impose export controls on vaccines produced in Europe, banning a shipment of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from Italy to Australia. And under rising pressure from their own populations, some EU member states have stopped waiting for the EU scheme to deliver the goods, instead doing side-deals of their own. First out of the traps was Hungary, buying two million doses of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine and approving a Chinese vaccine. Slovakia bought Sputnik as well, and the Czechs are reportedly mulling it over. And now Italy and Austria are in negotiation with Russia on buying and jointly producing Sputnik. Crucially, the big guns of the EU, Germany and France, are now putting out feelers too.
The German government, whilst always declaring in favour of a united approach, had already displayed its readiness to cut side-deals with big pharma outside the remit of the EU scheme back in September, when it signed a contract with Pfizer for 30 million doses. But in April, when German health minister Jens Spahn announced talks with Russia for the supply of Sputnik V, a vaccine which had been comprehensively rubbished in the West both by governments and media, the shock was palpable.
For Spahn, the last straw was the EU’s refusal to sign a contract with the producers of Sputnik V, in distinction with all the other manufacturers. His response was defiant, promising to go ahead and hold bilateral talks with the Russians anyway. Meanwhile Bavaria blithely declared that it had signed a ‘pre-contract’ for the supply of 2.5 million doses of Sputnik V, with production taking place in Bavaria itself.
As for the eastern states of Germany which had previously formed part of the German Democratic Republic, it seems that lingering memories of life under socialism are immunising the population against the wholesale demonisation of Sputnik V and all things Russian. “Reiner Haseloff, the head of the eastern state of Saxony Anhalt, talked recently of the success of a Soviet vaccine against polio in the 1960s in stamping out the disease in the communist-run German Democratic Republic (GDR). There, citizens were required to receive 17 separate vaccines before reaching adulthood, most of which had their origins in the Soviet Union.
“Michael Kretschmer, the head of the state of Saxony, also once part of the GDR, said it was preferable for the government to negotiate with Sputnik V’s producers for the whole of Germany.
“‘Every available vaccine has to be used, on condition that they’re safe and receive approval. We would all be vaccinating far more if there were sufficient doses available,’ he told Die Zeit. ‘Russia is a great land of science and I don’t have the faintest doubt that scientists there are capable of producing an effective vaccine’” (Kate Connolly, ‘German minister defies EU by saying he wants Russia to supply Sputnik vaccine’, The Guardian, 8 April 2021).
The western campaign to rubbish Sputnik V cannot be divorced from the propaganda offensive being waged on all fronts, with the ultimate aim of softening up public opinion for armed confrontation. Moscow understands this very well, and firmly resists this unscientific and politically motivated attack. A Kremlin spokesman told TASS that a “scenario of information attack on Sputnik V is being prepared through controlled non-governmental organisations (the US Agency for International Development, Soros foundation, Thomson Reuters Foundation) and media structures (BBC, Reuters, Internews). [The attack] aims to substantiate the promoted theses about the vaccine’s ‘inefficiency and danger’ by faking mass deaths allegedly caused by the use of the medicine” (Andrew Rettma, ‘Four deaths after taking Russian Sputnik V vaccine’, EU Observer, 9 April 2021).
However, the reality on the ground suggests that the tide is turning and more and more countries are voting with their feet and having recourse to Sputnik V. At the last count, 58 countries have approved the use of the Russian vaccine.
Meanwhile China’s own vaccines are also hitting the spot, both in terms of export and domestic use. Having early on identified the virus and sequenced its genome, China is currently the world’s top exporter of vaccines, ahead of the EU and India which are struggling to meet demand. The South China Morning Post reports that China has exported 80 million ready-made doses and another 90 million doses-worth of bulk ingredient (finished in factories in Mexico, Indonesia and Brazil). And on the home front, China has already administered in excess of 145 million doses. (Simone McCarthy, ‘How China took an unlikely lead in the global supply of Covid-19 vaccines’, 9 April 2021).
At present the WHO’s Covax Facility, whose stated aim is to make vaccines a public good rather than a source of profit, does not accept the Chinese vaccines as part of the collective effort to beat the virus world wide. To supply Covax requires a licence from the WHO, which as yet has not been forthcoming. It is unclear whether this is due to political pressure or is simply motivated by caution, but meanwhile global supply still fails to meet demand for millions of people whilst the western world struggles to get itself organised. In this regard the remarks of a professor at the University of Hong Kong, quoted by the South China Morning Post, are pertinent. Jin Dong-yan told the paper, “Even if those [Chinese vaccines] might not be as effective as other vaccines … for those who have no access to vaccines without them, it can still help. They could protect people from severe disease and death – that is the contribution and the value of the Chinese vaccines.”
Whilst countries like China, Russia and Cuba are increasingly seen as a lifeline for millions who would otherwise have no early prospect of getting any protection at all against the scourge of Covid, the imperialist world has shown itself to be incapable of uniting in a common humanitarian goal, instead getting trapped behind conflicting national interests, jockeying for geopolitical advantage and trying to win a fast buck. Humanity deserves better.