Anti-Covid vaccines: Health is just a commodity for capitalism

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The article that follows was written before the current row between Britain and the EU over supplies of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The EU, responding to AstraZeneca’s delays in supplying the agreed quantities of its version of the vaccine, threatened to respond by restricting supplies of the Pfizer vaccine to the UK, by taking AstraZeneca to court, and by suspending its own rulings about trade with Northern Ireland. The British minister for vaccines, Nadhim Zahawi, hit back: “Vaccine nationalism is the wrong way to go. No one is safe until we’re all safe”[1]

Noble sentiments indeed. But as our article shows, “vaccine nationalism” is precisely the way that nations and companies are going because they cannot escape the laws of profitability and the sharpening tendency of “every man for himself” in international relations. Zahawi’s own government is tireless in its rhetoric about safeguarding “the country” or “the British people” as if there could really be “Covid safety in a single country”. The richer countries are racing ahead of the poorer countries in producing and distributing the vaccines among themselves. The pharmaceutical companies vie to be top dog on the vaccines market. Israel is hailed as a world leader in the number of citizens vaccinated, but accepts no legal responsibility for immunising the Palestinian non-citizens under its military occupation, while the Palestinian Authority insists on going its own way by ordering cheaper (and very poorly tested) Russian vaccines.

No one is safe until we’re all safe. But capitalism, a system which is genetically incapable of going beyond national competition, will never ensure that we can be kept safe from the succession of disasters it is visiting upon humanity.


When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared in May 2020 that the vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 would be for the "world’s public good", you could only believe that by clinging to illusions in the capacity of the capitalist world to play a positive role for humanity in the midst of an unprecedented world crisis. Similarly, calls for compulsory licensing[2] only show a naive utopianism.

In fact, there is nothing to lead one to think that the anti-Covid 19 vaccine would escape the laws of capitalism and their consequences: competition, races for markets, espionage, theft of technology, etc., even when it's a matter of saving millions of human lives. And for good reason, because the health crisis comes at a time when the world is prey to the decomposition of the capitalist system of production. The pandemic, while being the direct fruit of this process of decomposition, further contributes to its acceleration.

From the beginning of the sickness and the discovery of its infectious agent, a virus unknown up to now, the scientific community knew that only a vaccine could bring it under control. Elements of the pharmaceutical industry were happy to work in their own corners in the race to be the first to deliver the precious vaccine. But beyond the considerable commercial stakes for research laboratories and pharmaceutical groups, there was an evident political bonus for states able to access it.

Human health is a market...

From the first moments of the pandemic the war of vaccines began, just as it did in preceding epidemics or pandemics. There are numerous examples but we can cite two of them: Firstly AIDS.[3] The battle began in the research for the agent responsible for this unknown illness. The teams of Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur institute were followed by those of Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute in the United States. The driving force of these teams was evidently not to rapidly identify the agent in order to begin the fight against it, but to be the first to be able to claim property rights over it and take a step forward on future treatments and vaccines.

In January 1983, the French team won by a short head. But the war had only just begun and it really took off around the question of tests, where this time the Americans took their revenge. It was the Abbot Laboratory which positioned itself best in this promising market, potentially offering the possibility of providing billions of tests likely to be made around the world in a few years. The war of treatments then followed where the greatest contempt for human life was shown; France in particular was out for revenge after its defeat in the war of tests. As soon as the first hopes were raised around the drug Cyclosporine, the Health Minister at the time, Georgina Dufoix, publicly gave it the "French label", before seeing those hopes finally dashed by the first tests undertaken on the molecule. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Deputy General Secretary of Health announced the miracle solution of AZT while test results were still inconclusive.

These scandalous announcements incarnate the stark interests of these two competing states in addition to a total disinterest in the thousands of sick people who had put their hopes in a rapid treatment saving them from certain death. But each state only counted on the necessity to be the first in the race to lead the world.

The "blood contamination scandal" in France in the 1980's[4] revealed that the state had sat on blood donor screenings of HIV and Hepatitis C for six months, while, as an American study showed, this technique was in place by late 1984. The "war of tests" and the obsession with budget cuts led to the maintenance of deliberately criminal practices of contaminated blood transfusions given to haemophiliacs and other patients in order to get rid of old stocks and make economies whatever the cost, provoking the death of thousands between 1984 and 1985.

Today, the war around the AIDS virus vaccine continues even if lack of profitability as a long-term treatment (lifelong in fact) dictates that research has slowed greatly under the impulse of austerity, leading states to scrape the bottom of the barrel by considerably reducing basic research budgets.

In 2019 in Africa, the situation was somewhat similar around the epidemic of the Ebola virus[5] in a climate of accusations about the diversions of funds towards the Congolese leadership but also against the WHO regarding the choice of one vaccine over another. While the German laboratory, Merck, had proposed an efficient vaccine but in insufficient quantities, the American laboratory, Johnson & Johnson announced another, complementary to it but never tested on humans! The fight was on to introduce this newcomer with lobbying operations and other means of pressure.

The present situation goes along the same lines. While the grand speeches and announcements around international cooperation about creating a vaccine abound, while "good common sense" would have you think that the coming together of international forces of pharmaceutical research would bring about a more rapid and efficient result, reality is quite different. In November 2020 there were 259 proposed vaccines in the world, of which ten were in Phase 3 (the last phase before the drug is authorised prior to being put on the "market"). That's 259 teams each working in their own corner, keeping a wary eye out for the advances of others so as to not double up, and looking not for efficiency but for exclusivity of process. The first to make a move, Pfizer and BioNTech announced 90% efficiency for their vaccine. A few days later Russia announced an efficiency rate of... 92%. Modena put its nose in front by announcing its vaccine's 94% efficiency. Never mind that, Pfizer declared that it had reviewed its calculations and announced a final efficiency rate of 95%! Who's the best? This cynical bidding-up, both chilling and appalling in the promotion and marketing of these products, while dozens of millions of victims’ lives are at stake, sums up the deadly functioning of this rotten society.

... and an issue of war between states

Many denounce this race for the financial windfall that a future vaccine implies, but they are mistaken when they lay the blame at the feet of "Big Pharma", the few giant laboratories fighting each other over the health market. Also mistaken are those that demand public authorities regulate the situation and "constrain" the industry to cooperate for the public good.

Because what is at stake here isn't the greed of some players but a logic which embraces the whole planet, all human activity: the logic of capitalism. Scientific research does not escape the laws of capitalism; it needs money to move forward and money only goes where profits can be expected: you only lend to the rich!

Should individual states bring in regulation in this world-wide free-for-all? But these same capitalist states are at the heart of such wrangles and are the first to direct research according to their own financial resources In a world beset by imperialist rivalries, it is of course in the field of defense and armaments that research is the best funded. But the health sector is not exempt! After the September 11 attacks of 2001, the US authorities revised their strategies on vaccine research which up to then they had neglected, in order to finance research into the so-called "large-spectrum" vaccine capable of immunising against several viruses in the concern to combat a growing threat from bio-terrorism. In another vein, the very active Chinese health policy in Africa these last decades is animated solely by its imperialist interests[6]. Anything goes in getting a foothold and increasing its influence on the planet. China has been increasing its presence in Africa: investments, economic implantation, political and military support, "humanitarian" assistance and... health.

Today all states are behind their own laboratories and all are defending their own interests without the least concern for principles. With a constant contempt for the bloody consequences of the disease, states are fighting each other in order to get hold of the maximum number of vaccines, knowing that in this battle only the richest will do well out of it and that, consequently, the greater part of humanity will not have access to the vaccines, or very slowly at least. Last April, the COVAX platform was set-up, a multilateral platform dedicated to the purchase and distribution of future vaccines and promising equitable access for all. All state leaders have congratulated themselves over this cooperation. But, underhandedly, each of them has entered into bi-lateral agreements with laboratories in order to reserve their own doses. Whereas the industry aimed to produce four million doses from now to the end of 2021, the furtively made reservations amount to five billion, solely destined to a few countries: the United States, China, the European Union and some of the less wealthy countries trying to come out of their miserable lot, like Brazil for example.

Today only the British Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is available to COVAX, less costly than its competitors but whose proven efficiency up to now has not gone beyond 62%[7]. The poorest countries, notably lacking the necessary means for the conservation and transportation of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, will have to be content with what stocks Britain has left.

Capitalism's logic of death

In the meantime people die... and the bourgeoisie continues to be overwhelmed by events, continuing to react day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour with the same negligence, the same health and logistical shortages, the same irresponsibility it's shown with the two successive waves of the pandemic. At the very heart of the great industrial countries the vaccination campaign is severely hampered by logistical deficiencies in member countries of the EU, such as Germany where transportation and distribution of the vaccine has been disrupted in several towns following doubts about the temperature-controlled transport chain of thousands of doses that have been held up in Spain for example. In the United States, despite the impressive logistical mobilisation led by the army, "There have been misfires" according to the celebrated Dr. Fauci and only a little more than 4.2 million people have received the first dose of one of two vaccines authorised by the state (Pfizer and Moderna), far from the 20 million people vaccinated before the end of the year promised by Trump who left it up to the initiative of each state governor. And when the pandemic broke daily records for contamination and deaths in saturated hospitals[8] (close to 21.5 million cases, more than 360,000 deaths to January 4 this year) those responsible for the programme, in order to increase the numbers involved in the campaign, raised the possibility of administering the vaccine in ... half doses!. The British decision to widen the gap between the administration of doses by some weeks is also quite irrational from an immunological point of view. Vaccination procedures are excessively slow and totally inadequate given the urgency and the crying needs created by an ever-mutating virus. In a caricatural manner, France declared the last week of December to be "Operation Media" with televised vaccinations of some old ladies while dozens of millions of others waited until the end of January to receive their first injections, with unlikely excuses such as "it will take time to vaccinate the elderly". It is no secret in France that if some EHPAD (nursing homes) residents who were prioritised over health professionals, it is because that there weren't enough doses for the latter!

The latest "health scandals" only show, once again, the incapacity of capitalism to react otherwise than through "each for themselves", for the defence of its short-term interests, with unpreparedness and improvisation. In France this has ended up with a functioning that relies on the good will of pharmacies and doctors who are limiting logistical costs and setting up the strict minimum of super-freezers in hospital pharmacies and centralising transport in town pharmacies, who must organise themselves in order to then distribute the flasks in the establishments.

Under these conditions we are nowhere near the end of this health crisis. And after that, there will be others...

But the most fraudulent aspect of the campaign around vaccinations is that it is not just promoted as a panacea for the health crisis; above all it is presented to us by the ruling class today as the only means of beating the economic crisis and the accelerating deterioration of living conditions which everywhere are being aggravated. This campaign is trying to mask the impasse, the insurmountable contradictions, engendered by capitalist relations of production.

Because what is presently hitting humanity is not caused by bad luck but it is a product of a system at the end of its road whose decomposition threatens to drag us all down with it. Consequently, the negligence of the bourgeoisie is not the result of the incompetence of some leaders but of the incapacity of the dominant class to contain the effects of the decay of its system: this class can do nothing other than act in the defence of its own interests. And as long as such logic remains in place, humanity will not escape from the scourges that flow from it.

GD (6.1.21)


[1] EU Covid vaccine supply row deepens as minister Nadhim Zahawi warns against ‘nationalism’ | Evening Standard

[2]  Necessary procedures for medical discoveries of a treatment or a vaccine allowing the manufacture of generic copies, which means a more rapid and widespread access at a lesser cost.

[3]  See for example, "AIDS: the war of laboratories", (February 7, 1987) on

[4]  A scandal which affected at least tens of thousands of people in Canada, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Portugal, the USA and Britain where the state used the most Draconian measures in order to cover up its criminal responsibility.

[5]  See "RDC, the war of vaccines affects the fight against Ebola" on

[7] And see: "Covid-19: Why the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine authorised by the United Kingdom could change the deal".

[8]  In Los Angeles for example, the rationing of oxygen and beds in emergency departments is such that ambulances are asked to no longer transport some patients to hospital, i.e., those with cardiac arrest or those with a faint chance of survival.


Vaccine wars