Who owns the covid vaccines?
A key idea from sf is “all laws are local, and no law knows how local it is.” Prisoners of our own time and place, it’s hard not to feel like we’re living in the only possible world, is if everything around us is inevitable and natural — and any change is “unnatural.”
But anyone who’s ever dabbled in multi-agent modeling (sims where “individuals” each have their own goals and aversions) knows there are lots of stable configurations that a big, complex system can fall into, and re-rerunning the same sim produces wildly different outcomes.
14 months ago, we hit STOP on our big, complex system and now the US is about to hit START again. It will not be a return to “normalcy,” because the old normal wasn’t inevitable. There are lots of other ways we could get along. And frankly, the old normal sucked.
A key way in which Old Normal sucked was the way that monopolists were able to style themselves as heroic entrepreneurs whose great rewards were commensurate with their great risks — when in reality, the risks were always socialized and only the gains were privatized.
That’s an area where a new normal is long overdue, and that new normal is being born in the controversy over public access to covid vaccines.
Helping the poor world manufacture its own vaccines is the obvious right thing to do.
Not just because vaccine apartheid is slow genocide, but also because the longer billions of people are infected, the greater the chance that one of them will incubate a vaccine-resistant, even more deadly mutation.
MRNA vaccines are wild: compared to conventional vaccines, they can be manufactured with 99.7% less capital and 99.9% less physical plant, and mRNA production facilities can retool to make new vaccines 1,000% faster.
Moderna’s own assessment is that new mRNA facilities can be built in 3–4 months. There’s no good scientific or humanitarian reason to object to patent- and know-how transfer to the Global South, where vaccination is currently projected for 2023/4 (!).
We’ve just experienced the collapse of the racist lie — peddled by Big Pharma, Bill Gates, Howard Dean and other vaccine apartheid apologists — that poor brown people are too primitive to make vaccines.
The new talking point? “CHINA! CHINA! CHINA!”
Whether it’s racist lies about the Global South or New Cold War hysteria, the underlying ideological story is the same: exclusive patent rights and the (spectacular) profits they yield are the foundation of lifesaving medical innovation.
That is, fate has placed among us a tiny cohort of collosi, endowed with the superpower of inventing the future. But for all their creative might, these saviors-in-potentia have the fragile temperaments of toddlers, and if they’re denied their due, they’ll abandon us to die.
“Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” The true mRNA vaccines theft isn’t entrepreneur-inventors who face robbery by the public sector — rather, those “entrepreneurs” have enjoyed billions in public subsidies, and now insist they owe nothing in return.
So much public investment went into the covid vaccines that it’s hard to account for it all. The GAO thinks that Uncle Sam coughed up $18–23b in direct subsidies. BARDA pumped in $19.3b.
The USG picked up the tab for non-clinical studies of new covid vaccines ($900m), and also shelled out for Phase III trials ($2.7b).
Moderna got $53m for production capacity, part of $100m in direct capacity contracts to pharma, backed with $2.7b for contract manufacturers.
J&J got a $1b pre-order from the USG; Moderna got $4.95b, Pfizer (which touts its lack of public subsidy!) got a $5.97b guaranteed order.
That’s just the latest round of investment. BARDA has been backing mRNA vaccine research for years, pumping billions into the project.
Pharma’s claim that it doesn’t owe us anything in return makes no sense, even by the companies’ own logic. They say that markets produce wonders because they reward canny risk-taking with vast fortunes.
By that logic, the public — who assumed the majority of the risk in developing vaccines — are the angel investors in this high-tech unicorn, and the pharma companies are the VCs who came in with some late capital to help scale up a sure thing.
It’s neither good business — nor legal — for early minority investors get squeezed out by latecomers.
But, of course, the government isn’t a business. Our democratic institutions direct our national productive capacity to R&D in service to human thriving, not profit.
Public investment in R&D isn’t a business in the same way that having kids isn’t a retirement plan: we have kids because we love them and want them to thrive. If they care for us in our dotage, that’s great, but if you treat your kid as an ambulatory 401k, you’re a monster.
I first encountered these ideas when serving as an NGO rep at WIPO alongside Jamie Love and Knowledge Ecology International. Love helped create the Access to Medicines Treaty and has been fighting the pharma industry’s self-serving story of fragile genius for decades.
In an interview with Janine Jackson at FAIR, Love lays out the plain case for an IP-waiver to enable poor countries to make their own vaccines, like the undeniable truth that this would “definitely expand the production and supply of vaccines.”
Love also recounts the kind of public subsidy that went into covid vaccine production (for example, Pfizer’s boasts of free enterprise entrepreneurship omits the €400m from Germany and €100m from the rest of the EU).
Pharma’s claims of philanthropic largesse are wildly overblown. Pfizer told its shareholders it expects $26b from covid vaccines in 2021; Moderna’s projecting $20b (Moderna’s CEO’s personal net worth just hit $5b).
All that before pharma companies jack up the prices for “their” vaccines, in the years to come when we all need annual boosters, when the price will go from $10 to $175/dose, for a vaccine that costs $0.10/dose to manufacture.
The case for public access to vaccines and the case against pharma as a necessary or even laudable force for good is so thin, it’s remarkable that it’s persisted this long.
But as Love points out, the ideology that knowledge-monopolies are moral has some powerful backers.
Bill Gates is a prime example. Gates has been committed to enclosing commonly created knowledge and turning it into a monopoly — in service to coaxing our toddler-genius-collosi into action — since he was a teenager, writing petulant letters to computer hobbyists.
Today, Gates — a convicted monopolist — directs one of the world’s great fortunes (“behind every great fortune…”), and he mobilizes his capital to prop up the story of necessary and benevolent profiteering.
The Gates Foundation, for example, donates millions to “independent” media outlets (as well as partnering with public media like the BBC), and as Love describes, this has a chilling effect on negative reporting on Gates, the Foundation, and its ideology.
Like the time Love got a Washington Monthly reporter interested in a critical story about how the Gates Foundation’s grants influence its media coverage — only to have the reporter’s editor kill the story because they’d just applied for one of those grants (!).
Gates is a true ideologue, a relentless campaigner against any public access to public goods, in every domain, not just software. He’s been at it a long time, leading the charge against Nelson Mandela’s demand that South Africa be allowed to manufacture its own AIDS drugs.
Love: “Gates is a smart guy; he’s not the only smart guy around or smart woman around. I think people need to listen to other views. And, actually, Gates has sort of a mental block about these issues, and so some of his arguments just don’t add up.”
But all laws are local, and multi-agent systems have many stable configurations. On Friday, the New York Times editorial board — long a voice for strong corporate power — published an editorial and accompanying package strongly endorsing vaccine waivers.
The Times notes that the global economy is losing trillions due to lockdown, and that these loses will mount for so long as vaccines aren’t universally available.
But it also makes an ethical case, calling vaccine apartheid a “moral failure.”
It warns of political instability and the potential for states to topple if something isn’t done, pointing to the pitched battles in Colombia (in which death squads are now murdering leftists with impunity and posting snuff videos to social media as a boast — and a warning).
Beyond advocating for vaccine waivers, the Times backs Public Citizen’s plan to spend $25b ramping up domestic, publicly owned vaccine production facilities to make vaccines to be given away free or at cost to poor countries.
That effort will produce 8b vaccine doses, “enough to vaccinate half the planet.” And it will provide booster shots and new anti-variant vaccines into the future.
The future is coming. Lockdowns are lifting. The rich world is inching toward an emergence from emergency. But normalcy isn’t returning — thank goodness. The whole world deserves (and requires) so much better than normal.
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Shakedown (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering; and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias.