A year ago, when the World Health Organization (WHO) inaugurated the pandemic status and death began to ravage European and Asian populations, the possibility of an immune solution to the coronavirus seemed distant. The feeling was one of abandonment in a world crowned by inequality and the existential crisis of the capitalist system, an anxiety that augured worse times ahead.
That is until Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca were held up as a civilizational example of how markets incentivize and practice scientific innovation at a critical time for the health of the human species. A very good job by the Western media, by the way, in transmitting the corporate message to the world.
Big Pharma, once again, was winning a round in the hopeful and anguished hearts of millions of people around the world, especially that portion that is capable of monopolizing more than 70% of the doses available on the market in very few hands.
As the months went by, the results of the clinical trials of the corporate vaccines became known, generating great expectations for business (first) and health (later) in the United States and Europe, while it was discovered that countries such as China and Russia were developing their own vaccines.
Thus began a multipolar race for COVID vaccines that generated diverse strategies:
- Pfizer, while using private funds for its vaccine development, benefited from $2 billion in advance and guaranteed orders from the US government and used technology from BioNTech, funded by German public money;
- Moderna received $2.5 billion in US government aid;
- AstraZeneca benefited from a UK government-funded laboratory at the public university of Oxford to produce an off-patent, open access vaccine with guaranteed low prices;
- Several Russian and Chinese public institutes began developing their own vaccines, most notably the Gamaleya Institute’s Sputnik V vaccine.
The divide is clear: pharmaceutical companies have been characterized by profiting from state/public funds and infrastructure for the benefit of private profit, while countries antagonistic to this business model are sovereignly developing their vaccines with the intention of making them accessible to the world’s poorest countries.
Indeed, US efforts to dissuade countries from acquiring Sputnik V, while not entirely successful, have crystallized into a defamatory propaganda campaign wherever the Russian vaccine is distributed.
Douglas León Natera, Pdte. de la Federación Médica Vzla, llamó a no colocarse la vacuna Rusa Sputnik V.
PD: Háganle caso a este EXCELSO médico!pic.twitter.com/wpN1MedWXu
— Esteban Trapiello (@TrapieLLo) February 18, 2021
So, this hoisting of the health corporations has been premeditated and sponsored even by the US government, which as many of us know pressured the Brazilian government not to sign any contract with Russia to acquire Sputnik V as a kind of “malicious influence”.
The battle for the covid vaccine market has a high economic impact, considering recent statements by President Vladimir Putin suggesting that the West has sought to slander Russia’s scientific efforts because the market is estimated to be worth $100 billion. To get an idea of how gigantic these numbers are, Russia’s revenue from the sale of oil and oil products is just shy of $100 billion.
It is notable that the US promotes Pfizer’s vaccine above all, but those of Moderna and AstraZeneca also have media and political support. But not for long for the latter.
AstraZeneca again in the eye of the storm
Several countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world have already suspended the use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Although there are still no conclusive results from studies in these countries that determine the direct link between the vaccine and the blood clots that have been found among those vaccinated, the situation is still tense, generating a drama that puts the prestige of this pharmaceutical company, one of the biggest beneficiaries of public money, in jeopardy.
Indian economist Jayati Ghosh tells how AstraZeneca's vaccine was developed:
The vaccine was developed entirely by a publicly funded laboratory at Oxford University. The original distribution model was for an open licensing platform, designed to make the vaccine freely available to any manufacturer. However, the Gates Foundation, which had influence because it had donated $750 million to Oxford for vaccine development, persuaded the university to change course completely and sign “an exclusive vaccine deal with AstraZeneca that gave the pharmaceutical giant exclusive rights and no guarantee of low prices”. (Jay Hancock 2020)
Oxford and AstraZeneca promised not to profit from the sale of the vaccine, but details were left fuzzy. While Oxford will not receive royalties during the pandemic, it could later benefit from patents, including those of Vaccitech, a for-profit spin-off company.
Meanwhile, AstraZeneca is charging differential prices for its vaccines shipped to different countries, with some poorer countries paying higher rates. The European Union pays $3.50 per dose, while Bangladesh pays $4 and South Africa pays up to $5.25 (Politico, 2021).
This price variation is not limited to AstraZeneca’s injection. Due to competition for doses and opacity in contracts, the range of reported vaccine prices is wide: from $2.19 to as much as $44 per dose, as of March 1. (UNICEF, Covid Dashboard).
Doesn't Ghosh's account sound more like fraud - is it so hard to admit?
Although the use of the vaccine in question is being suspended in major EU countries such as Germany and France, it has nothing to do with the business model imposed on the current global health context. Apparently, there is nothing to criticize or transform there, according to those governments.
And yet it is curious that fraud has been a constant feature of AstraZeneca, not only during these pandemic months in which the company has been immersed in scandals of corrupt transparency in contracts signed with the European Commission and about the delay and quantity of doses agreed with each country, but also in other periods of history the Anglo-Swiss pharmaceutical company has been prosecuted in US and European courts for offenses more or less related to the above.
A brief search on the web shows that in 2003, 2010, 2014, 2018, and 2020 the company AstraZeneca has had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for fraud cases in which its representatives have successively had to accept the guilt of the cases or have been found guilty at trial.
So it would not be the first time that this company has been tarnished in the public eye, but this does not discourage the most conspicuous promoters of neoliberalism. On the contrary, impunity for these pharmaceutical companies reigns like a religious dogma and they will continue to undermine the interests of the global poor with an eye on the lucrative drama that injects a market as big as the pandemic tragedy we are living through.
Translated by: Resumen Latinoaméricano English