COVID-19 Vaccine: The Free Market’s Failure

Covid 19 Vaccine Failure

As the COVID-19 crisis ravages the health of millions worldwide and undermines the shoddy foundation of the global capitalist economy, many are asking how things have reached this point. We had been led to believe that humanity had overcome the threat of plagues and pandemics. Hasn’t capitalism produced wonders of science and human health? Wasn’t free market competition supposed to spur innovation?

The reality unfolding before us today reveals a starkly different truth. Despite decades of warnings from scientists, the combined efforts of the world’s most powerful governments, best-resourced private health companies, and most prestigious institutions have been exposed as useless in the face of the CoV-SARS-2 virus.

Wasted potential

On April 11, the Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald published a report detailing the impact of 2010 spending cuts made by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a US government agency, on research towards a SARS vaccine. The virus which caused the 2002 SARS outbreak and CoV-SARS-2 share 79% of their genetic code.

Image: National Cancer Institute
In 2010, the NIH abruptly pulled the plug on research for a SARS vaccine, though the program was on the brink of a possible breakthrough. / Image: National Cancer Institute

Interviewing Professor Nikolai Petrovsky, a vaccine researcher at Flinders University in Australia, the Morning Herald’s report reveals breathtaking waste and futility at the heart of the world’s foremost health authority. Prof. Petrovsky explained that his lab was the recipient of NIH SARS vaccine research grants between 2004 and 2010.

Describing the impact of the 2010 cuts, Prof. Petrovsky said “It wasn’t a lot of money. We were so close … With a tiny modification we could use it for COVID-19. We’d already be in the clinic now.”

The report goes on to say that Prof. Petrovsky’s research team had already completed the animal-testing phase of their research, and that they needed only $1.5 million to complete human trials.

This is a tiny sum compared to the billion the NIH had already spent on the research to that point. And yet, in 2010, the NIH abruptly pulled the plug on research for a SARS vaccine, though the program was on the brink of a possible breakthrough, pivoting its limited budget to research treatments for Ebola and Influenza.

“It was brutal. It wasn’t just ‘cut SARS funding,’ it was ‘stop funding today’ … They’d already invested a billion dollars—and what was crazy was not closing that last unanswered gap,” Petrovsky said.

The Morning Herald also noted the opinion of Nobel laureate immunologist Peter Dougherty, who added, “If these vaccine trials had gone ahead—and they looked good—we would have felt in much better shape now.”

The report also noted the impact of cuts to a similar research project at Baylor University in Texas, which only needed $3–4 million to advance their study to the human trials stage.

“You would have had something in the refrigerator that you knew was safe to give to humans. And you could rapidly take it and start using it,” said Professor Maria Bottazzi, co-director of Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development and a member of the vaccine team at Baylor.

Had her work been funded to completion, it would have shaved “definitely at least a year” off the 12 to 18-month timetable commonly quoted to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.
Had the research been funded to completion, it would have shaved “definitely at least a year” off the 12 to 18-month timetable commonly quoted to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. / U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.

Vaccine needed

Over the last two months, hundreds of research institutions across the world have entered the race to develop a vaccine against the virus which causes COVID-19. Experts caution that immunity to the virus acquired from direct exposure may last only a year or two and there are already hundreds of confirmed cases of reinfected.

A vaccine is, therefore, necessary in order for the situation to stabilize. Researchers estimate that it will take 12-18 months to develop a viable vaccine, but it is also entirely possible that the process, which has begun from scratch, may require a much longer timeframe. As a point of reference, the mumps vaccine currently holds the development speed record: four years. Had the NIH not undercut years of established research in 2010, the duration of today’s pandemic could have been significantly shortened.

Capitalism fumbled our health

The president and the GOP bear much of the responsibility for the scale of the disaster in the US, which has now recorded the most COVID-19 deaths of any country. The federal government’s response has been a failure at every step along the way. Trump’s desire to ease necessary social distancing measures starting on May 1, even as the death toll mounts, should infuriate every worker whose health will be at risk for the sake of capitalist profits.

However, The Sydney Morning Herald’s revelations are also a damning indictment of the Obama-Biden administration. This is not a “Trump crisis” but a systemic crisis.

While it is true that the Democrats, who controlled both houses of US Congress as well as the White House from 2009–2010, modestly increased the NIH’s budget in that period, it is clear that the agency was forced to prioritize other emerging diseases with its limited resources. This led it to abruptly pull the plug on advanced research which could have saved a vast number of lives had it come to fruition.

DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos
The Sydney Morning Herald’s revelations are also a damning indictment of the Obama-Biden administration. This is not a “Trump crisis” but a systemic crisis. / DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos

In precisely the same period, the Democrats had no problem spending $80 billion on corporate bailouts for American automobile manufacturers. They also saw fit to increase the US military’s budget to an eye-watering $784.84 billion dollars in that year alone. The $4–5 million needed to bring SARS vaccines to the human trial stage is a pittance compared to these figures.

Capitalist governments worldwide responded to the 2008 financial crisis with bailouts, at public expense, for the finance industry and numerous corporations deemed “too big to fail.” The price tag has been passed along to the workers in the form of cuts to social services that benefit the working class and intense downward pressure on the budgets of agencies like the NIH. In other words, the working class was made to pay the price for capitalists’ crisis—and today we’re paying with our very lives.

The bloated and inefficient for-profit private healthcare sector totally failed to pick up the slack when state-funded research efforts were left high and dry. In fact, the burden of long-term scientific research on essential technologies like vaccines is most often left to the state sector, as private enterprise regards such things as too great a financial risk to warrant investment. Considering the hundreds of billions of dollars in profits made by the American healthcare and pharmaceutical industry over the last decade, this underscores the vast disconnect between the private motive and the incapacity to meet human need inherent to capitalism.

There was nothing inevitable about the health disaster unfolding around our planet today. Humanity has the scientific and industrial wherewithal to meet and even prevent such calamities. But the market economy, based on private property and the profit motive, utterly lacks the ability to put these assets to good use. In order to protect the health of billions around the world, genuinely advance medical science, and put an end to the vast scale of waste at all levels of society, the working class must take political and economic power away from the capitalists. We must build a publicly owned, democratically planned economy, which prioritizes human health and wellbeing above all else.


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