With vaccine production left to Big Pharma, supply shortages have led to tensions across Europe. A clash between the UK, EU, and AstraZeneca has heightened fears of ‘vaccine protectionism’. We need socialist planning.
The latest twist in the vaccine deployment saga has exposed the contradictions within the European Union and the limits of the capitalist market to deal with a crisis. In the last few days, we have witnessed the beginning of a clash both between the EU and the UK, and within the EU in something that reminds us of the debt crisis of 2011 and 2012.
As we published almost a month ago:
With the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine recently approved for use in the UK; and products by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and others already being administered around the world, one would think we are approaching the end of this pandemic. However, pharmaceutical profiteers and political representatives of the ruling class are bungling the rollout in some of the worst-affected countries. In their haste to return to ‘normal’ and get the economy moving again, they are ignoring the science and cutting corners thus putting lives at risk.
Big pharma has been ‘cutting the corners’ in a particularly scandalous manner showing that their role in society is not to provide medicines or any other philanthropic aim but to make profits and pay dividends, as they have shown since the beginning of the crisis. That is what private multinationals are for!
Left to market forces
In late 2020, Der Spiegel reported that Pfizer was negotiating the possibility of extracting a sixth dose from each flask produced with the European Medicines Agency (EMA). This could have meant an increase in the speed of implementation by 20%. Under a planned economy this would have been excellent news, yet even though initially Pfizer announced this would not change its profits and would be done to increase vaccination capacity, the reality is that Pfizer quickly modified its deliveries to the European Union.
Pfizer revised its deliveries downwards, estimating that the agreement was per dose and not per flask. This immediately increased its profits by 17%. It matters little to the complaints of health workers that extracting the sixth dose is a difficult and time-consuming process, that puts the entire burden on the shoulders of health workers in already overburdened public health systems. Pfizer announced it would produce 100 million flasks in its first batch instead of 120 million as agreed. What would happen to the 20 million doses at 12 euros per dose? Pfizer would sell them to the highest bidder on the international market. The secret agreements between Pfizer and the European Commission regarding vaccine prices were only made public knowledge due to a later deleted, leaked tweet from the Belgian minister Eva de Bleeker.
For now, only Italy, under pressure from consumer associations, is planning to take Pfizer to court. Belgium, where the vaccine is produced, prefers not to litigate, probably for fear that Pfizer might decide to relocate production. The French government has brokered a deal whereby Sanofi will produce and distribute the Pfizer vaccine, however the Macron administration has little interest in defending the interests of its citizens and a significant interest in defending its ‘national champion’, Sanofi.
AstraZeneca has also shared the spotlight. On the eve of the approval by the European Medical Agency, its CEO Pascal Soriot gave a scandalous interview to Reppublica, where apart from lambasting the EU for being late compared to the UK, who signed the contract 3 months earlier, he also said that ‘people are becoming too emotional’ in saying that they produce the vaccine for ‘humankind’ and not for profit.
This led Commission officials and EU state representatives to speculate that AstraZeneca may have shipped doses manufactured in Belgium to other customers, realising that production was not progressing fast enough. AstraZeneca attempted to avoid meeting contractual obligations to the EU, which had made a prepayment of hundreds of millions of Euros. In other words, AstraZeneca would be speculating with its vaccine and helping itself to the public money offered by the EU.
A controversial meeting on 25 January between member state and EU officials, and representatives of the British-Swedish pharmaceutical conglomerate AstraZeneca, informed Brussels on Friday that vaccine production would fall far short of its contractual obligations. AstraZeneca is playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the EU and is sticking to its guns, saying the contract only asks it to supply to their ‘best effort’. This sparked another public row between EU officials and the company.
Given that the contracts negotiated remain secret or published with half of its text redacted, one can only speculate that he is telling the truth. Why would he lie when the risk is to publish a contract? The issue is that the European Commission has shown its incapability to negotiate contracts with public health at heart, and only seems capable of negotiating when this is beneficial to Big Pharma, something the EU has been doing for the last seven decades! The issue is that the interests of some pharmaceutical companies come into contradiction with the national interest of some members of the European Union; this is the gordian knot that the Commission is being faced with again and again.
At the same time, Hungary has already announced that they will be buying the vaccines from Russia and China despite the lack of approval (or even request of approval in the Chinese case) by the European Authority. Even though Sandra Gallina, the negotiator of the contracts between the EU and Big Pharma, announced on 12 January that she was not aware of any other contracts beyond those negotiated by the Commission and if they existed, she said, they would be against the Treaty (TFEU). Hungary so far does not seem to concern itself with EU sanctions.
The situation has become ‘each to their own’ which is precisely what happens within the European Union whenever there is a problem. The German ruling elite count on their national influence and the fact that the Pfizer vaccine was made with a German start up to deploy as soon as possible. They do not seem interested in any sort of ‘European solidarity’. The Hungarian government seems to have understood that and thus acts independently, evidently without understanding the long-lasting consequences of this.
It is increasingly clear that so-called ‘European unity’ breaks as soon as there is a crisis, and the COVID19 pandemic has been no different. At this stage of the deployment of the vaccine, we see how each significant member state is dealing with the issue in an individual manner and they leave the European Commission as a letterbox of their individual needs.
Almost a year after the WHO (World Health Organisation) declared COVID19 a global pandemic, the European Commission began to propose European travel regulations for EU citizens. So far, all measures have been taken on a national basis without any consultation or coordination between member states.
And now controls!
The European Union is first and foremost a free trade zone and a market. 70 years of European integration have created a club whose members are forced to come to agreements in order to be able to play a role in global markets. But history is full of strange developments. The current crisis pushed the European Union to propose export controls to ensure that Pfizer, AstraZeneca, etc do not export part of the vaccine abroad.
This immediately created a bust-up between the European Union and the United Kingdom, only 3 weeks after the withdrawal of the latter from the EU.
Even though foreign trade controls are the antithesis of everything the European Commission stands for, the stubborn reality is that to maintain a pretension of control they had to propose a mechanism to guide vaccine production. The mechanism was announced by the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides on Friday 29th January and within 48 hours she had to backtrack due to complaints by the Irish government, threats of retaliation from the UK and criticism within the European Commission from those seeing it, rightly, as a burden on the free market.
The Irish TD (prime minister) was quick to call Ursual Von der Leyen to complain about the use of Article 16 of the EU-UK Brexit agreement that was to impose control on the UK-Irish border. This response came much faster than ten years ago, when the Irish economy went bankrupt, exposing how sensitive the issue of the border is going to be in the months to come once the Brexit deal is fully implemented. As Micheál Martin TD said, the issue has ‘explosive political implications’.
As we have said before, the European Commission is faced with the unsolvable problem of representing Big Pharma’s interests, appeasing the differences between the different members of the block and maintaining a public pretense of caring about the millions of Europeans infected by COVID. This is impossible; you cannot serve two masters. Either they defend the profits of the big multinational pharmaceutical companies or they create a plan to deploy the vaccine at a massive scale across the continent. Of course, their choice was made from the outset, and readers will know which one was chosen, and for such a crisis the fact that the EU is a market and has no direct tools of influence, make their big declarations farcical once compared with the reality on the ground.
The left and nationalisation
This situation is tailor-made for the left. The need for the nationalisation of the pharmaceutical industry has never been raised so clearly. The fact that the bourgeois press has pre-emptively defended a case against such a move has opened the debate. Libération, once a left-wing paper in France, today the voice of the liberal bourgeoisie, ran an article asking if there was a need to nationalise only a few days ago.
The Brussels correspondent writing the article ends up defending the current mode of production, as well as austerity. As could have been expected, the article claims: ‘The only way to meet the immense need for vaccines is therefore to increase production lines with companies that have the capacity. This is the path chosen by the French Sanofi, which will produce the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine from this summer, and Recipharm, which has reached an agreement with Moderna.’ The fact that the newspaper has commented in this way, is significant.
What has been missing so far are calls for nationalisation by the elected representatives of so-called communist parties, at the level of both national and European Parliament. One can assume that continental socialist parties have long forgotten such demands, but after the economic crisis of 2008 we saw some radicalisation and the creation of new ‘radical’ parties, the silence of whom is remarkable. Very few are advancing the demand for nationalisation. The trade union leadership is also extremely timid in putting forward demands, sadly complaining about the lack of transparency and the need of a different approach, as if this system would allow such things.
In France, the giant multinational Sanofi announced 400 jobs losses in the research department at the very same time that the government is brokering a deal to produce the Pfizer vaccine, yet the CGT has not come out with a demand for nationalisation!
So far most of left and the trade unions have been calling for pressure on the WTO to enforce the suspension of TRIPS (the WTO agreement protecting the right to vaccines) for the vaccine and COVID medicines and to sign a European Citizens Initiative to legislate on vaccine rights. A rather poor record for the worst pandemic in living memory.
Communist MEP Sira Riga and PTB/PVDA (a Belgian communist organisation) MEP Marc Botenga wrote an opinion piece last weekend in which their main demand is as follows:
“Despite what it may seem, we are not at all unprotected from the pharmaceutical industry. We simply have to act with the mechanisms that we have at our disposal. We need the production of Pfizer and AstraZeneca, among others, and the real costs of this production can be offset. But we have already paid four times for the vaccine. By breaking their monopoly, we could rapidly increase production. That would mean less dividends for the shareholders of pharmaceutical companies, yes, but more vaccines for everyone and the saving of lives in Europe and in the rest of the world. The technical and political tools are on the table. It is time to use them.”
Let’s us remember here at what Trotsky pointed out in the Transitional Programme:
“The socialist program of expropriation, i.e., of political overthrow of the bourgeoisie and liquidation of its economic domination, should in no case during the present transitional period hinder us from advancing, when the occasion warrants, the demand for the expropriation of several key branches of industry vital for national existence or of the most parasitic group of the bourgeoisie.” (…) “The necessity of advancing the slogan of expropriation in the course of daily agitation in partial form, and not only in our propaganda in its more comprehensive aspects, is dictated by the fact that different branches of industry are on different levels of development, occupy a different place in the life of society, and pass-through different stages of the class struggle. Only a general revolutionary upsurge of the proletariat can place the complete expropriation of the bourgeoisie on the order of the day. The task of transitional demands is to prepare the proletariat to solve this problem”
The current crisis of the European Union and the COVID19 pandemic should be a golden opportunity to present an alternative to the current economic system and not build illusions on the ‘existing tools within the system’.
What must be done instead is to highlight the real source of this crisis: the capitalist system and its hapless political representatives. And to raise the demand of nationalisation of the pharmaceutical industry without compensation, in order to give us a real solution to the pandemic.