Viral Topography of Neoliberalism: Transnational Laboratories and the Commodification of Life

Jorge Elbaum
https://www.comminit.com/global/files/imagecache/rotator_980x400/hrwcovid.pngImage: “Whoever Finds the Vaccine Must Share It”: Strengthening Human Rights and Transparency Around Covid-19 Vaccines | Human Rights Watch

After a year of pandemic and more than two million deaths, the prevailing global political model and the transnational laboratories exhibit their evident inability to produce and distribute vaccines that could prevent the accumulation of the number of victims. Corporations and their neoliberal defenders continue with their task of maximizing profits.

The laboratories listed on the stock exchange are opposed to coordinating health efforts, in order to prolong their sales over time: a global campaign centralized by the World Health Organization (WHO) – with high levels of articulation and cooperation in the production, distribution and logistics phases – would make it possible to avoid the hundreds of thousands of lives that will perish thanks to the greed of the markets. India, South Africa and China have proposed to the WHO the temporary interruption of the intellectual property of products related to the virus, granting compensation to laboratories so that their vaccines can be produced in a coordinated manner.

The health crisis and its economic and social consequences show that the market is not efficient in dealing with the major problems of humanity. In the case of laboratories in Europe and the United States, the protocols that made it possible to achieve acceptable results in the different validation phases received state contributions and subsidies. However, pressure from the laboratories, combined with the weakness of governments, deprived the public authorities of the ability to make decisions when it came to defining the rates of production and distribution.

One of the companies in the race to impose its vaccine, the transnational Pfizer, has among its main shareholders the BlackRock fund. In March 2019, this laboratory received a subsidy from the United States government of 2 billion dollars. Its competitor, Moderna, pocketed 2.5 billion increasing the value of its shares. It is estimated that Washington and Brussels provided around $10 billion in non-refundable contributions, while advancing purchases of the vaccines prior to the start of vaccine development.

In addition, the vast majority of virologists and geneticists involved in the most relevant research have been trained in public academic spaces, with state scholarships or intergovernmental funding. As on other occasions, it is the fiscal contributions that drive the enormous profits of private companies. Thus, the great majorities end up paying, through their tax contributions, for the enormous profits of large corporations. But they are not the recipients of the profits when it comes to dividends.

Health is traded on Wall Street

With the resources obtained, the pharmacological corporations buy back their own shares without reinvesting this capital in research and development, waiting for new opportunities to resort to the huge contributions of the States, urgently needed to provide health responses to their respective populations. In the budgets of the large laboratories, it can be seen that 20% of the resources go to marketing and advertising, with the aim of promoting drugs whose research has already been amortized. This business, facilitated by state permissiveness, guarantees them an extraordinary net profit.

In 2016, the WHO published a prospective document on potential viral threats and placed the coronavirus as one of the eight most relevant threats to global public health. Large corporations rejected those warnings and refused to engage in coronavirus research because they were not guaranteed immediate profits and state subsidies were not assured. These market speculations are what allowed Moderna and Pfizer to achieve a lucrative turnover of 32 billion dollars by 2020.

The big players in the pharmaceutical industry exhibit profit margins higher than those of any other serial production: they are around 17%, much higher than the 11% average of the rest of the global industry. They are also one of the sectors with the highest level of deposits in tax havens: the four largest laboratories in the world alone (GSK, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Sanofi) evade taxes of 3.8 billion dollars a year. However, their CEOs are the same ones who take part in the Davos meetings – including the one that just ended last Friday – to defend the primacy of the market over the State and to uphold transparency as the pristine currency of public ethics.

These same principles, usual for the corporate logic of transnationals, were exposed when one of the EU contracts with the German laboratory CureVac, associated with Bayer for the supply of 225 million doses, was disclosed. Among its clauses, it prohibits EU member states from donating to any country outside the EU, and even strictly prohibits the delivery of doses to any NGO and/or the WHO that intends to distribute them to non-EU countries (e.g. poor or peripheral countries).

It also exempts the laboratory from any liability for damages or losses caused to those inoculated, including death. Guaranteed profits for the companies. Failures and losses for the States.

Another expression of the privilege of speculative logic over public health was exposed during the last week, with the case of the laboratory AstraZeneca (AZ). The EU accused this transnational of reducing the deliveries committed to EU countries. The lawsuit includes a complaint against its board of directors for smuggling part of the production committed to European Community countries. One of AZ’s plants located in Brussels was raided last Thursday to certify the evaporation of doses destined for the United Kingdom and Israel, which were apparently willing to pay overprices to the pharmaceutical company.

Brussels signed a contract with AZ for 80 million doses to be distributed in the first quarter, but the company claims that it would only be able to supply 30 million during that period. This non-compliance led, last Thursday, to the raid of one of the production plants in Belgium and the warning by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, to appeal to Article 122 of the Treaty on European Union, which allows the intervention in the company for reasons of force majeure. Brexit has its consequences.

Moral collapse

According to Jürgen von Oertzen, professor at the University of Lüneburg, the laboratories are deliberately trying not to speed up production and distribution because they are pursuing the dual objective of receiving more state subsidies and, at the same time, amortizing the newly built facilities. Their speculative plans to supply vaccines to their customers require staggered deliveries. Such a pace gives them greater ability to maximize their profits and establish stronger proprietary patterns to defend their patents.

Faced with this stark reality, the highest authority of the WHO, the Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned that the world is on the verge of “catastrophic moral bankruptcy”: according to the forecasts of this multilateral organization, 9 out of 10 people in the poorest countries will not be vaccinated during 2021, which will multiply deaths and provide an advantage for the virus to persist and mutate. The more time the coronavirus has to spread, the longer it survives.

There are currently 49 vaccines registered with WHO that are under clinical evaluation, including 13 that are in Phase III. Another 164 are in preclinical trials. In Latin America, the most advanced project is that of Cuba, which is currently evaluating the efficacy of three state projects of the Finlay Institute and the Sinopharm company: the vaccines known as Mambisa, Abdala and Soberanas (01, 02, 01A), all of them in second phase trials, with high expectations of immunological efficacy.

The result of the economic crisis produced by the pandemic leaves a debt equivalent – for governments, companies and households – to three times the global GDP. However, the CEOs of the transnational corporations recently gathered in Davos are pushing for a global reset of neoliberalism, promoting the platform economy, based on deregulation, labor flexibility and the continuity of financialization, a combo that enables them to continue siphoning off their resources to fiscal haven.

Meanwhile, in Argentina, the opposition questions the practices of social isolation suggested by the WHO (as in the case of Formosa) while its media spokespersons stigmatize through fake news the Chinese and Russian cooperation with Latin American countries, questioning the scientific reliability of vaccines that do not come from European or American monopolistic corporations.

The local right wing is the partner of those who consider life as something to be bought and sold. And they define health as a marketable service. That is the reason why they are determined to erode confidence in a vaccine produced by a Russian state laboratory and, at the same time, to delegitimize any form of fight against contagion: the more deaths that occur -they argue-, the more justifications they will have to apostrophize during the electoral dispute next October. The multiplication of those infected and deceased, they speculate, will be consolidated as part of their political capital.

It is very likely that the cambiemitas, the pseudo-libertarians and the corporatists of the big laboratories do not know the true origin of the phrase of the Falangist José Millán-Astray. But there is no doubt that they do not cease to regurgitate its unmistakable meaning: “Viva la Muerte!”.

Jorge Elbaum: Sociologist, PhD in Economics, senior analyst at the Latin American Center for Strategic Analysis (CLAE, http://www.estrategia.la).

Translation by Internationalist 360°