Intellectual Property: How Racism and Billionaires Will Keep Covid-19 Going
Like many Americans, I learned that there was no point in giving AIDS drugs to Africans because they didn’t have watches from The West Wing, and therefore Africans can’t tell what time it is and take their ART (Anti-Retroviral Therapy) drugs appropriately. A waste of our generous help!
That idea was racist and ignorant when it aired, it was racist and conniving when the incident it was based on happened, and viewing it now is jaw dropping. It was so seductively shot, so convincing in its presentation, that I kind of believed it for a moment, even though I knew better. I had to snap out of it to see that it was dehumanizing and ridiculous. Of course these problems with telling time were solved long before AIDS was a thing, in the course of normal life. And yes, even back in the 90s people in Africa often had wristwatches. When someone bothered to actually study the issue a few years later, it turned out that Africans not only did ok taking HAART therapy, they did considerably better than their North American counterparts, despite all of our fancy wristwatches.
I was pleasantly surprised that the Biden administration came out in support of a TRIPS waiver for vaccines and vaccine-related intellectual property, which would allow other manufacturers to make Covid-19 vaccines for local and regional use. But then the internet exploded with nonsense about how it wouldn’t help, and these poor, maybe even brown, people can’t be trusted to stand up their own production. Making vaccines is hard, you see. South Africa and India are the first asking for TRIPS waivers to make cheap vaccines for the poor world, but if you listen to much western media and commentary, these people can’t make these super-advanced vaccines, they’re too technical for developing countries to make correctly. It’s complicated, it’s expensive, who will check the quality? Pay no mind that the world’s largest maker of vaccines is the Serum Institute of India, and they’re already manufacturing multiple Covid-19 vaccines.
Twenty years and a lot of social justice movements later, we’re right back to the West Wing’s painful racist AIDS scene again. There’s no point in intellectual property waivers for developing (non-white) nations, we hear from company executives, European politicians, Bill Gates, and other death-eaters, because they don’t have the ability to ensure the quality of these super advanced vaccines. Some variation of “This only covers patents and there’s a lot more to vaccines than the patent.” keeps floating around, and is wrong. The request covers more than patents, and the people asking for the waivers demonstrably know how to make vaccines. This is South Africa and India asking, they both have very strong pharmaceutical industries. Plenty of other countries could be ready to go. Could less developed countries stand up new facilities? It’s complicated, in Africa and elsewhere, but that’s a much more interesting and complicated question than could India, where some are being made under license right now.
But even if it would take investment, creating vaccine and pharmaceutical capacity in developing nations is something we should do as soon as possible for what I hope are, by 2021, painfully obvious reasons.
Besides assumptions of non-white incompetence, assholes have another line of attack: how will we make more medicines if pharma companies can’t charge astronomical amounts, since research is expensive and the manufacturing is the cheap part?
Of course, with programs like Operation Warp Speed throwing money at pharma companies as fast as the government could print it, and then turning around and selling vaccines back to rich governments, they’ve already done pretty well. Pfizer alone booked $3.5 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2021, Moderna took in $1.7 billion just for its vaccine. AstraZeneca pledged to make no profits off the vaccine Oxford did the work on, so they’ve only made $275 million so far — practically sainthood for a pharma company.
Pfizer very proudly refused funding from the US government, except for $1.95 billion in pre-orders, and another $445 million that the German government gave Biontech, the company which actually made the vaccine.
Truly, these are Randian heroes showing what the Free Market can do.
According to pearl clutching neoliberals, No one would make vaccines if we didn’t let these companies profit from the world’s misery. But I’m pretty sure the same people who do now would still be doing it, working somewhere else for the same wages, just more directly paid by governments instead of having their salaries laundered through corporate boards. Operation Warp Speed alone put in $18 billion, most of which was to be wasted as nature intended, by board rooms instead of government agencies controlled by people who get elected.
These companies and the deatheater robber barons who helm them want you to stay racist and ignorant, so they can use international institutions and straight-up corruption to destroy the economies and political systems of less developed nations, who could ultimately do fine making vaccines and therapies themselves for much less money. The way things are now, those of us living in the rich have to pay much higher prices to vaccinate disadvantaged nations than they would pay if they just did it themselves. And those nations would pay that money largely to themselves! That is something the Bill Gates and his cohort, the likes of Jeff Bezos, Vincent Bolloré, Stephen Schwarzman, Peter Theil, Mark Zuckerberg, Ivan Glasenberg, Rupert Murdoch, and so many more, cannot abide. That wealth must be extracted out of the rich white world, and never transferred to the brown or poor world as anything but legacy-insuring largess for the lessers or kickbacks to support corrupt local leadership.
In the mean time, the virus is still threatening to rage through the world, mutating as it goes into something that can start escaping our vaccines if we let it keep burning through people long enough. Even if it takes months, or a year, to adapt existing facilities or stand up new manufacturing in new countries in Asia, South America, and Africa, it literally cannot be slower that doing it in existing infrastructure and trying to funnel it all through COVAX while China and Russia rev up political influence and deals through vaccination offers which may in fact be a little shady at times.
Meanwhile, people just keep dying.
Proprietary vaccines is just the typical end-to-end bullshit, and the neoliberal deathcult won’t pause just because all of human society is in crisis. If we wait for the world’s billionaires and CEOs to get around to vaccinating all of the rest of the world, we’ll all be fighting SARS-CoV-21 by the time it finally burns itself out. And if the virus can be made into a money and power pump for the billionaire class, count on it we’ll still have the virus around.
What can you do about this?
If you’re in Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, or the UK, contact your elected representative and give them a fucking earful on this. Until those countries come around, not much is likely to happen. If you’re not in one of those places, talk about this with people you know, especially any who are in those countries/regions. This isn’t just about being nice to people who don’t have access to vaccines, it’s also about everyone getting to the aftertimes. It’s required for rebuilding a normal life uninterrupted, even in the vaccinated world.
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