The world’s richest and poorest states are competing to buy stocks of a potential swine flu vaccine. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the world’s laboratories may only be able to produce 900 million doses of vaccine for the A(H1N1) strain (swine flu) per year, for a planet that is home to 6.8 billion people.
WHO director Margaret Chan said last week, “The lion’s share of these limited supplies will go to wealthy countries. Again we see the advantage of affluence. Again we see access denied by an inability to pay.” She added “In the field of health, public policy will remain imperfect as long as access to life-saving interventions is biased in favour of affluence”. Developing countries were of particular concern because they did not have the capacity to deliver the vaccine to people who needed protection. The WHO warned that poverty will prevent some countries from gaining access to swine flu vaccines and criticised the bias in favour of richer nations.
In related news, British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the world’s second largest pharmaceutical company, is set to reap billions from the pandemic. GSK is charging the British government £6 a dose for a swine flu vaccine which costs just £1 to produce. This week it announced profits of £2.1 billion for the past three months. Sales of vaccines and anti-viral drugs could push the figure up even higher.
It has so far sold £60 million worth of its anti-viral flu treatment Relenza. The drug reduces the length and severity of the disease and is recommended for pregnant women with swine flu. GlaxoSmithKline is expected to reap around £3 billion by January from sales of its swine flu vaccine and its anti-viral drug Relenza. GSK chief executive Andrew Witty describes the swine flu crisis as a “significant financial event for the company”. The company’s share price increased on the stock exchange over the course of last week.
Ironically, in the case of swine flu a relatively effective treatment already exists – the anti-viral drug Tamiflu – yet its supply is severely limited due to the patent held on it by pharmaceutical giant Roche. Roche fought a long battle to maintain its monopoly on the drug, and the profits it generates, only bowing to the intense pressure to offer licences for its generic production in 2005. But production of Tamiflu is still well below what is needed to deal with a serious pandemic, and the cost of it is prohibitive for most of the world’s population. Drugs giant, Roche, the makers of Tamiflu, reported a 13 percent increase in profits since April, with sales of Tamiflu expected to triple.
The profit-driven nature of capitalist society also hampers the response to pandemics when they do break out. The competition between pharmaceutical companies directly undermines the cooperation that is essential to generating an effective vaccine in the shortest possible amount of time. Secrecy and withholding vital research results and information from their competitors is an indispensable way by which pharmaceutical companies maintain their competitive edge in the market place, but at the same time represents a major barrier to humanity’s collective ability to cure disease and prevent its spread.
Even the origins of the Swine flu epidemic bare the hallmarks of capitalist profiteering. The first patient to be infected with swine flu has been identified as Edgar Hernandez, a five-year-old from La Gloria in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The region is home to nearly a million pigs on 8 different industrial factory farms; all owned and operated by Smithfield Foods, a massive US farming corporation worth $1.4 billion US and the largest supplier of pork in the world. For months before the outbreak of swine flu the residents of La Gloria had been protesting against the pig farms. They demanded they take safety precautions as the constant leaks from the manure lagoons and huge amounts of flies attracted to the piles of manure and pig carcasses found all over the factory farm posed a health risk to the population of the town.
At the beginning of April, 2 weeks before the outbreak was identified the residents reported a massive increase in respiratory disease, with over half the towns 3,000 population reported sick. Criticisms of agro-business in for environmental damage and hazardous production methods, are all to common. Diseases are so frequent on factory farms that 1 in 5 of the farms produce their own vaccines as the vaccine industry cannot keep up with the development of the disease.
It seems the current pandemic is following the same pattern as most other international crises, it is the poor who bear the brunt of the suffering. Even domestically the Swine flu ‘hot spots’ are concentrated in the most deprived neighbourhoods. The competitive profit-focused interests of the rich have contributed to the unnecessary severity of the pandemic, in the developed and third world. The fact that the authorities are unwilling to demand concessions or place constraints on pharmaceutical companies is indicative of the subordination of all social considerations to corporate profit.
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This post was written by Christopher Vasey