Patents on vaccines: capitalist property must go!

Lutte Ouvrière workplace newsletter
May 10, 2021

US president Joe Biden caused surprise when he announced that he was in favor of suspending patents on Covid vaccines in order to bolster their production. Up until now, the US administration had ruled out the possibility of waiving international property protection, as had European leaders. In a recent vote in the European Parliament, LREM, LR and RN Members of the European Parliament formally opposed doing so1. And now the president of the United States has caught everyone flat-footed.

Macron had given up on the idea of making vaccines “a common good” for humanity and now Biden has stepped up, at least verbally, with a more left-wing approach. Left-wing leaders Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Unsubmissive France), Fabien Roussel (French Communist Party) and Anne Hidalgo (Socialist Party, mayor of Paris) were all very pleased and warmly applauded Biden's announcement.

The daily newspaper L'Humanité2 even wrote that Biden is ready to “limit the empire of the all-powerful American pharmaceutical monopolies and their profits in order to make health and life around the world a priority”. It's a good thing being ridiculous never killed anyone.

Biden is the president of the world's leading imperialist power which makes him the chief representative of the interests of the capitalist class. He isn't worried about “health and life around the world”, he's worried about the bourgeoisie's business! If Biden wanted to help India – which is in a critical situation with 4,000 recorded deaths per day, the actual number of deaths being much higher – he wouldn't have banned all exports of vaccines and raw materials, as he’s done since he’s been in office.

The White House's announcement is anything but altruistic. The only thing it and other world powers are concerned with is how to create the conditions to get business and international trade up and running again. And that isn't possible so long as the pandemic continues to spread in other countries and the threat of new variants remains. That's why world leaders are looking for ways to get the whole population vaccinated.

And yet more than 1.5 million women and men will continue to die each year from tuberculosis, even though it's a disease that can be cured. Hundreds of thousands more will die from malnutrition or from wars caused by the capitalist social order, by the plunder and exploitation upheld by those in power.

Biden won't put a knife to pharmaceutical companies' throats and neither will any other head of state. If the patent protection is indeed lifted, it will be the result of duly negotiated compensation. Needless to say the world's population won't be fully vaccinated anytime soon!

In the meantime, thousands more people are dying as the weeks go by and delays in vaccination persist. The fact that left-wing politicians are praising Biden's announcement just shows how low they have sunk.

Pharmaceutical companies have already made huge fortunes. Pfizer, for example, is going to make 26 billion dollars in vaccine sales in 2021, which is the kind of profitability all capitalists dream of. Pfizer is even considering raising the price of its vaccine!

Pharmaceutical labs are reaping such phenomenal profits because, through their patents, they have taken ownership of inventions that had only been made possible thanks to collective labor and public investment. They have taken ownership of the discoveries made by researchers and of the work done by wage earners.

This is how capitalist multinationals have established and consolidated their monopoly over all the major means of production, from large automotive companies to giant banks and major retail chains.

The private ownership of vaccines sheds a harsh light on what capitalism really is: a system where a minority of shareholders maintains a dictatorial power over us all. This is today's normal functioning of society.

The capitalist minority has the power to hire and fire workers, to open or close a factory, to organize the workload, work hours and work rates however they want. They also have tremendous power over workers' lives and over all of humanity, which can even be that of life or death.

Politicians who don't question capitalist private property and the power it gives to a handful of parasites don't represent the interests of the working class and the general population.

There is no reason for workers to bow down to the domination of the bourgeoisie. They must feel legitimate in challenging it. They must be aware that they have the collective strength to overthrow the bourgeoisie because they are the ones who make society run.

1LREM (La République En Marche) is President Macron’s party ; LR (Les Républicains) is the biggest right-wing party (it was called UMP under Sarkozy) ; RN (Rassemblement National), Marine Le Pen’s party, is the biggest party on the far right – it used to be called FN (Front National).

2L’Humanité, founded by Jean Jaurès in 1904, was the official organ of the French section of the Second International, then of the French Communist Party from 1920 until 1994.