On 23 March 2021, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a group of Conservative Party backbenchers: ‘The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends.’ Johnson was articulating the dogma that the pursuit of private profit through capitalist free markets leads to efficient outcomes.
In reality, however, Britain’s accomplishments in developing the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine and in the national vaccination rollout have more to do with state investments than the market mechanism. Government money subsidised the vaccine development at the University of Oxford, and it is the state-funded National Health Service that has carried out the vaccination programme.
Johnson did not admit that it is due to capitalism and greed that Britain now has the fifth worst Covid-19 mortality rate in the world with over 126,500 deaths (almost 1,857 per million people in the population) and counting.
The British government, like most neoliberal regimes, refused to take the measures necessary to slow and halt community transmission, it failed early on to provide health care and social care workers with adequate PPE and other resources which could have saved the lives of hundreds of frontline staff who died as a result.
It contracted private businesses to carry out essential activities, most with little or no relevant experience, for example, instead of equipping the community-based GP system of the National Health Service to take charge of ‘track and trace’, the government dished out £37 billion to Serco to manage part of the system. In public health terms it has been disastrous; but measured by Boris Johnson’s celebrated standards of capitalism and greed it is has indeed excelled. The greatest beneficiaries of Britain’s response to the pandemic have been the private corporations making huge profits. Around 2,500 Accenture, Deloitte and McKinsey consultants are on an average daily rate of £1,000, with some paid £6,624 a day.
Johnson has now laid out a road map for reopening the economy. As a result, even the most optimistic scenario predicts a third wave between September 2021 and January 2022 resulting in at least 30,000 additional deaths in Britain. These deaths are preventable. But it precisely because the British government is driven by the capitalism and greed that it insists that we have to learn to ‘live with the virus’ so that the business of business can continue.
Contrary to Johnson’s claims, this pandemic has affirmed that public healthcare needs cannot be adequately met under a profit-based system. Indeed, it is the absence of the capitalist profit motive which underlies the outstanding domestic and international response to Covid-19 by socialist Cuba, which now has five vaccines in clinical trials and is set to be among the first nations to vaccinate its entire population.
By reacting quickly and decisively, by mobilising its public healthcare system and world-leading biotech sector, Cuba has kept contagion and fatalities low. In 2020 Cuba confirmed a total of 12,225 coronavirus cases and 146 deaths in a population of 11.2 million, among the lowest rates in the Western Hemisphere.
In November 2020, the airports were opened, leading to a surge with more infections in January 2021 than the whole of the previous year. By 24 March 2021, Cuba had registered fewer than 70,000 cases and 408 deaths. The death rate was 35 per million and the fatality rate was just 0.59% (2.2% worldwide; 2.9% in Britain). Within one year, 57 brigades of medical specialists from Cuba’s Henry Reeve International Contingent had treated 1.26 million Covid-19 patients in 40 countries; they joined 28,000 Cuban healthcare professionals already working in 66 countries.
Cuba’s accomplishments are more extraordinary given that from 2017 onwards, the Trump administration punitively unleashed 240 new sanctions, actions and measures to tighten the 60-year blockade of Cuba, including nearly 50 additional measures during the pandemic which cost the health sector alone over $200 million.
Cuba has gone on the offensive against Covid-19, mobilising the prevention-focussed, community based public healthcare system to carry out daily house visits to actively detect and treat cases and channelling the medical science sector to adapt and produce new treatments for patients and Covid-19 specific vaccines. These advances bring hope not just for Cuba, but for the world.
What is special about Cuba’s vaccines?
Some 200 Covid vaccines are being developed worldwide; by 25 March 2021, 23 candidates had advanced to phase III clinical trials. Two of those were Cuban (Soberana 2 and Abdala). No other Latin American country has developed its own vaccine at this stage. Cuba has three more vaccine candidates in earlier stage trials (Soberana 1, Soberana Plus and an intranasal, needle-free vaccine called Mambisa). How do we explain this accomplishment? Cuba’s biotech sector is unique; entirely state-funded and owned, free from private interests, profits are not sought domestically, and innovation is channelled to meet public health needs.
Dozens of research and development institutions collaborate, sharing resources and knowledge, instead of competing, which facilitates a fast track from research and innovation to trials and application. Cuba has the capacity to produce 60-70% of the medicines it consumes domestically, an imperative due to the US blockade and the cost of medicines in the international market. There is also fluidity between universities, research centres, and the public health system. These elements have proven vital in the development of Cuba’s Covid-19 vaccines.
There are five types of Covid-19 vaccines being developed globally:
+ Viral vector vaccines, which inject an unrelated harmless virus modified to deliver SARS-CoV-2 genetic material (Oxford AstraZeneca, Gamaleya and SputnikV);
+ Genetic vaccines containing a segment of SARS-CoV-2 virus genetic material (Pfizer, Moderna);
+ Inactivated vaccines containing disactivated SARS-CoV-2 virus (Sinovac,/Butantan, SinoPharm, Bharat Biotec);
+ Attenuated vaccines containing weakened SARS-CoV-2 virus (Codagenix);
+ Protein vaccines containing proteins from the virus which trigger an immune response (Novavax, Sanofi/GSK).