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Vaccine nationalism and profiteering: How capitalism has captured a pandemic


Dale T McKinley is a long-time political activist, researcher-writer and lecturer who works at the International Labour, Research and Information Group.

Poorer countries, which make up 84% of the global population, have only been able to secure around 32% of the world’s vaccine supply.

Over the last 2½ years, those of us living on the southern tip of the African continent have had front-row seats to the often absurd and mostly sordid theatre played out at the Zondo State Capture Commission. We have watched and listened to story after story of corruption, mismanagement, dishonesty, greed and self-centredness, of how a small minority of the politically connected and powerful systematically went about capturing the South African state.

As if to rub salt into the gaping wounds inflicted by this sorry saga, along came the Covid-19 pandemic just over a year ago. Despite a few initially positive moves by some states to confront it, both in South Africa and in other countries, it was not long before the same combination of systemic, State Capture “behaviour” once again rose to the surface. Nowhere has this been more acutely applied and felt than in relation to the development, procurement and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. 

Right from the start it became clear that the agreements and plans for the development of vaccines, which mostly emanated from wealthy, developed countries (including Russia and China), were going to be moulded by a dominant nationalist logic (ie, “we will take care of ourselves first”), would privilege a capitalist, profit-generating and market-based approach, and be shrouded in secrecy. 

Using billions in public funds, governments poured money into research and development projects run mostly by private/corporate pharmaceutical outfits. Even before it was known which vaccines would/would not be effective or what the final costs would be, bilateral deals were cut for billions of doses.

At the same time, the World Health Organisation (WHO) initiated a global, public-private vaccine collaboration, the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax), which is designed to ensure equitable access to vaccines across the globe. The whole idea is that through funding cross-subsidisation from richer nations and a collectively planned equitable distribution, all 190 nations enrolled would obtain sufficient and affordable vaccines.

However, instead of prioritising such a collective and redistributional approach to vaccines through Covax (even with its potential weaknesses and problems), a mad nationalistic rush for vaccines has taken over. The last several months have seen almost 13 billion doses of various vaccines being bought, mostly through bilateral deals between specific nations and private pharmaceutical corporations, with a few between states. This is more than enough to vaccinate every single adult person in the world. 

The nationalist greed is astounding, with countries like Canada having bought five times more vaccines than needed and others, like the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union, purchasing more than twice what they need. The result: only 16% of the global population currently hold 60% of the vaccines.

Meanwhile, in order to fill the gap left by wholly inadequate Covax supplies, most low-and middle-income countries have been forced to try and make deals directly with pharmaceutical corporates, or in the case of Russia and China, with their state-owned outfits. So far, poorer countries, which make up 84% of the global population, have only been able to secure around 32% of the world’s vaccine supply. 

Because the necessary funding for Covax from the richer nations has not been forthcoming, poorer nations are now being further forced to turn to the World Bank, private banks and capitalist markets to source funds; funds that they will be responsible for paying back in one form or another.

As Solomon Dersso, chairperson of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has rightfully concluded, this is all the result of “a market-based approach to the production of and access to the vaccine, from which the pharmaceutical industry and those dominating the existing global economic system benefit the most”.

But it gets worse. Through the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips), the World Trade Organisation (WTO) maintains control over various intellectual property (IP) rights, such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information. All of these IP rights impact negatively on the availability, accessibility and affordability of Covid-19 vaccines. As such, India and South Africa (backed by 99 other countries, mostly in the Global South) have recently proposed that the WTO temporarily waive parts of Trips that cover IP rights related to Covid-19 vaccines, so that there can be “timely access to affordable medical products including vaccines and medicines… essential to combat Covid-19”. 

And what has been the response of the richer nations? To vigorously oppose it, claiming this would stifle innovation, compromise security and disincentivise research and development at pharmaceutical companies.

While there will be more upcoming discussions at the WTO, it is doubtful that things will change. Unlike Jonas Salk (the developer of the polio vaccine) who, when asked who owned the patent replied, “the people”, the small minority of political and economic elites from richer nations have clearly decided that the interests and profits of private corporates and/or state entities are more important than the health and indeed lives of billions of poorer citizens of the world.

Like the Wall Street hedge fund managers prior to the 2008 crash, the private and state vaccine pharmaceuticals (along with their political protectors/shareholders) are in the process of gorging themselves at the capitalists-only feast that has been prepared for them.

Sure enough, capitalist pharmaceuticals like Moderna and Pfizer are set to make incredible amounts of money.  Moderna is projected to earn around $10-billion (R150-billion) from its vaccine during 2021 while Pfizer is expected to rake in an astounding $19-billion (R275-billion) by the end of the year. All told, it is estimated that global Covid-19 vaccine sales could top $100-billion (R1.5-trillion), of which close to 50% will be profit for a handful of capitalist and state companies. Compare those numbers to the WHO’s estimation that an investment of $38-billion (R550-billion) would suffice to fully fund global vaccine access and would be paid back “in less than 36 hours once global mobility and trade alone are restored”.

Because of the IP rights, national security veils and the general secrecy surrounding the costing and pricing structures of Covid-19 vaccines, it is virtually impossible for ordinary people who, through taxes and other means have funded and continue to fund the lion’s share of vaccine research, purchase and distribution, to hold anyone to account. 

Like the Wall Street hedge fund managers prior to the 2008 crash, the private and state vaccine pharmaceuticals (along with their political protectors/shareholders) are in the process of gorging themselves at the capitalists-only feast that has been prepared for them. As usual, the gorgers will never pay for the bill. Meanwhile, the vast majority of humanity will be left to scramble for whatever small crumbs remain.

The more immediate and longer-term practical consequences of vaccine nationalism and profiteering for that majority can be sourced to the cold, perverted and ultimately inhumane logic of contemporary capitalism. That logic – which is not specific to the West – only pays attention to the livelihoods and lives of the workers and poor (and increasingly also, to the shrinking middle class) to the extent that they serve the profit motive and keep intact the political and economic elites’ hold over national and global power.

When applied to the global Covid-19 pandemic, one of the main practical impacts will continue to be unequal access to vaccines. In turn, this will mean a greater suffering and loss of life in under-vaccinated countries, greatly reduced global population immunity and an intensification of associated and ongoing social and economic problems; all of which, of course, will hit the poor and vulnerable the hardest.

If South Africa has learnt one lesson from its national State Capture journey over these past years, it must surely be that to have any real chance of stopping the capture, the country’s deep, structural and systemic social and economic crises have to be consciously recognised and then collectively confronted and addressed. The same applies, at both a national and global level, to the capturing of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Let the recapturing struggle take flight. DM

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c), it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are, therefore, disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information we should know about, please email

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Veronica Baxter says:

    I can’t decide whether I feel more of anger or anguish.

  • Pierre Boshoff says:

    Sooo, just to recap: government bad, countries bad, companies bad, profits bad? How do you propose coordinating the development and deployment of vaccines…?

    • Rob Dyer says:

      Through the WHO, silly. Our medical and research experts have shown themselves to be pretty competent as well, and they should oversee national distribution.

      • Pierre Boshoff says:

        Ok, so who funds the WHO? And who pays the medical and research experts? And who pays for development of the vaccine? It all costs money. If both governments and for-profit companies cannot be trusted, that leaves…some kind of goodwill towards men?

  • Michael Sham says:

    Where to begin with this poor analysis. For starters, Mr McKinley manipulates basic statistics like saying that 84% of the world is poor. In order to do this, he immediately classifies all Chinese, Indians, South East Asians, South Americans and Africans as poor. this includes the 5 million millionaires in China alone!

    He probably doesn’t even realise that all this article achieves is to highlight how much more successful capitalism is than his beloved communism. Like most communist sycophants, his solutions are never to improve the lot of poor people, but to punish successful people.

    The Berlin Wall fell for for a reason. What a pity it didn’t fall on top of people like Mr McKinley.

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