Vaccines - capitalism, greed and rivalry

By Frieda Park

Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that it was capitalism and greed that made Britain’s vaccine programme a success which was rather extraordinary since it was capitalism and greed that lay behind its total failure in managing the pandemic over the previous months. It bunged huge amounts of public money to cronies in consultancies and companies who failed to provide PPE. The favouring of friends and David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill might all have been technically within the rules, but was corrupt, nevertheless. It took a dogmatic approach to keeping the economy open only fuelling further surges in infection. There was a contempt for public services and their workers, worshiping the incompetent and self-serving private sector.

It was a public institution, Oxford University, which co-developed the main vaccine being used in Britain in partnership with Astra Zeneca, a private company. Pharmaceutical companies have received huge amounts of public funding to develop vaccines. Their success, therefore, has not been due to enterprising, greedy capitalists but state investment. Currently the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine is being sold at cost price, unlike most others, including Pfizer and Moderna. However, the company has reserved the right to change that when it deems the pandemic is over. Then no doubt it will reap huge future benefits from the public funding it received and market share it has acquired as the low-cost option. It could be said that this is almost a loss-leader to obtain competitive advantage in the future Covid vaccine market. Capitalism will benefit reaping the rewards of public procurement and state investment.

One of the key reasons that Britain’s vaccine programme is working is the organisation of our National Health Service and the dedication of its staff and volunteers delivering the programme. A sense of social solidarity has brought people together to get the jab in huge numbers as they seek to protect themselves, their families and communities. The opposite of capitalism and greed. Where capitalism and greed have been at the forefront of policy, failure has ensued. Countries which have deployed state planning and intervention, like China and New Zealand, have had the greatest success in combating the virus. It is helpful, however, that Johnson linked capitalism with greed as that is what capitalism is about – competing to gain profit, resources and advantage over those weaker than yourself. All capitalist companies, countries and alliances behave this way even if they are not usually crass enough to say so.


The failure of capitalism has also been evident in the botched EU vaccine procurement and rollout effort. This alliance of capitalist states is in competition with other capitalist countries for supplies of vaccines, but had failed to order them early on unlike Britain and the United States, two of its competitors. For example, the UK and the US ordered supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, based on early results, back in July 2020. Whereas the EU did not order it until 11th November. The EU also invested less in vaccine development than the US. Even when supplies became available some countries, like France, were slow to roll it out. The US and Britain then had first call on supplies and were relatively well prepared to start programmes as soon as vaccines were delivered. This has disadvantaged EU countries, but is hardly outrageous skulduggery, only modest and pretty standard capitalist competitive practice. The pro-EU establishment in Britain widely condemned the decision not to join the EU vaccine procurement programme. It was “unforgivable” according to The Guardian of 10th July 2020 which claimed that the procurement process would target supplies to the EU citizens who needed it most.

The bloc’s response to this has shed a light on how it habitually operates, throwing its weight around and threatening unilateral action to bully others into line. This aspect of the EU has been obscured in Britain by the polarised passions of the Brexit debate. The people of Greece and other EU countries who suffered under its austerity measures and refugees camped in terrible conditions and drowning in the Mediterranean are only too well aware of the dark side of its operations. To try to catch up with its competitors the EU stopped some exports, threatened an outright export ban and legal action. Even when this strategy failed and was doing huge reputational damage it persisted as it tried to shift blame for its own failure to Britain and Astra Zeneca – convenient targets post-Brexit. It escalated matters over concerns about the safety and efficacy of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine, some justified and some not. Use of the vaccine was widely limited or suspended by EU countries for periods of time. Bizarrely the EU was demanding a bigger share of the very vaccine which it was undermining. Despite talk about collaboration to increase supplies, the EU is not backing down and has agreed in principle that it could halt the export of vaccines from its territory.

Capitalism isn’t fair and doesn’t deliver resources based on need. Even if the EU does have a legitimate gripe that its vulnerable citizens are being left behind in the vaccine war, it is only arguing for redistribution from some rich economies - the US and Britain - to other rich economies in Europe. What about the really disadvantaged and vulnerable in the developing world? Without addressing that glaring need the EU’s claim to be arguing on the side of fairness rings hollow. While in Britain, the US, and more slowly in the EU, populations are being jabbed, few in the developing world have been vaccinated and have little prospect of this in the near future. Oxfam calculated that rich countries, with 14% of the world’s population had pre-ordered 53% of promising vaccines. The rich world simply by its economic power is ensuring it gets access to vaccines over the rest of the world. The COVAX programme which aims to distribute supplies to the developing world is struggling as it is under-funded and rich countries continue to buy up and hoard supplies. This has been combined with India, the world’s third largest producer of vaccines, imposing an export ban. It is now estimated that COVAX will struggle to deliver enough doses for developing countries to vaccinate even their health care workers, never mind the rest of their populations. Maybe only 10% of people in these countries will be vaccinated this year. (The Economist 3/4/21)


If the EU has ramped up tensions with other countries then the tensions within it have also emerged in the pandemic. Rather than cooperating, member states are now at each other’s throats and that of the Commission. The tendency in the EU over years has been to centralise power, taking it away from member states and the pandemic was seen to be a good opportunity to advance this agenda. The centralised purchase of vaccines was a first in the EU taking on an aspect of procurement and delivery across the whole bloc. Its failure and the fallout from this do not bode well for future EU integration. There was further evidence of the dysfunctionality of the EU when, according to the Financial Times, the bloc’s leaders spent most of the evening of its summit designed to tackle the vaccine crisis arguing about how to divide up just 10 million doses of the Pfizer jab. It is not just Hungary that is now looking to source Russian vaccines outwith the EU procurement process, and people nipping across borders into Serbia to get jabbed. Having been a prime mover in the plan to source vaccines centrally, it is reported that German states and Germany itself are looking to get the Sputnik V Russian vaccine. It is difficult to see how this will go down well with member states subject to the EU’s failed procurement system.

The EU struggled with other aspects of its drive to political union in the pandemic as national borders were reinstated, curtailing free movement of labour, to control the spread of the virus. The EU’s Covid Recovery and Resilience Facility is another step towards centralisation born in the pandemic, funded for the first time by issuing pan-European bonds. The cash being made available is a mix of loans and grants, contingent on neo-liberal reforms to domestic economies and ear-marked for other priorities defined by the EU, such as projects aimed at tackling climate change. Structural reforms, attacking pension rights for example, are going to be unpopular and EU objectives may not fit well with individual countries urgent needs coming out of the pandemic. This will cause further tensions.

Sadly the one thing which has worked relatively in the move to centralise the EU has not been to the benefit the people of the EU nor those beyond its borders. This has been the establishment of its first militarised force in the shape of Frontex – the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. Although initially established in 2004 it has now received significant funding and has been given new powers to try to stem migration to the EU by refugees. From €100m in 2017 its budget last year was €400m with it set to increase in the future. Frontex forces are not only deployed within the EU, but further afield in, for example, Albania and Montenegro, with civilian staff being deployed in Niger, Turkey, Senegal and Serbia. Even Frontex is not without its problems, however. It has faced legal action and criticism for illegal deportations of refugees and there are tensions between it and local border forces and governments.


Competition and greed mean that capitalism creates rivalries. It can never achieve a world of cooperation through markets, unequal alliances or trade agreements. Capitalist globalisation, amazing though its supply chains are, has its limitations and is fraught with inequality and injustice. The pandemic and the vaccine wars, amongst other things, have called into question the neo-liberal model of globalisation and countries, especially the United States, are seeking to repatriate production. This will not only guard against future supply problems of critical commodities, but will also be used as a post-pandemic stimulus mechanism to develop production at home. Individual countries’ desire for domination leads to conflict and war. A truly collaborative world will be realised only through policies founded on mutual respect, sharing resources and peaceful development, where regions are able to develop their peoples and resources. And if we are to tackle climate change then trade must be more sustainable and not about unnecessarily transporting goods across the globe on massive container ships or planes.


NHS vaccination success photo by Whispyhistory

Countries which have deployed state planning and intervention, like China and New Zealand, have had the greatest success in combating the virus.

Vaccination booth in Birmapur, Bangladesh – when will developing countries get vaccines? Photo by Wiki Ruhan