Capitalism will not save us from Covid

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When greed is the philosophy that guides a government, a “vaccine apartheid” is practically guaranteed

Boris Johnson attributed the success of vaccination in the UK to "capitalism" and "greed". While these were blunt claims, if the Prime Minister's words are any indication of his views on how the UK can recover from the pandemic, then there are worrying implications for the country's domestic and foreign policies.

This is not the first time Johnson has learned the wrong economic lesson from the Covid crisis. A few months ago, he stated, in this same spirit, that for “those on the left who think everything can be financed by dear tax-paying uncle… there comes a time when the state must step back and let the private sector go. forward". Johnson is also not the first person to see vaccines as a private sector scam. It is worth remembering that the “AstraZeneca” vaccine was created by scientists at the University of Oxford and was developed and distributed by the pharmaceutical giant. Yet the private sector has emerged as the winner in the public celebration of Covid vaccines.

The fact is that an unprecedented amount of public funding has been poured into vaccine research, development and production. The top six candidates have received an estimated US$12 billion (about R$70 billion) of public and taxpayer money, including US$1.7 billion for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and US$2.5 billion for the Pfizer/BioNTech candidate. An investment of this level represents an enormous risk – and it is not the only risk that the public sector has taken. Governments have used “upfront market commitments” to ensure that private companies that succeed in producing a vaccine for Covid-19 will be amply rewarded with large orders.

Public funds used in research and development are often more entrepreneurial – in the sense that governments are investing in the riskiest stages of health innovation, before any market becomes viable. That's part of the reason companies were able to develop a vaccine for Covid in record time. As a new report from the UK's Industrial Strategy Board makes clear, the rapid turnaround on vaccines would have been unthinkable without state involvement. Effective, “mission-oriented” government coordination – from industrial policy to investment in the life sciences, strategic public procurement and public-private partnerships – has been key to the successful story of Covid-19 vaccines. XNUMX.

There is, however, an important caveat to this narrative. Despite the government's recognition of the UK's strength in the life sciences sector, and despite its intention to expand this through two new sectoral agreements, the UK's ability to produce effective doses is far from a given. Britain's enduring failure to support its manufacturing base is reflected in recent disputes between the UK and the European Union over the supply of Oxford/AstraZeneca shots. Before the crisis, the UK had no interest in investing in an internal industrial base for the mass production of vaccines and other life science products. Had ministers drawn up an investment plan for British vaccine factories before the coronavirus pandemic, they likely would have met with a less-than-enthusiastic reception.

That's the benefit of hindsight. Looking back, however, also shows why a forward-looking vision for a long-term industrial strategy that invests in productivity and economic growth while also focusing on larger challenges such as the climate crisis and future pandemics is vital. Rather than seeing the current situation as the moment to initiate such a plan, Johnson is putting an end to a sensible industrial strategy. The recently announced demise of the Industrial Strategic Council does not bode well for the adoption of its valuable ideas. While the government is committed to doubling public spending on R&D to £22 billion a year by 2024-25, it proposes cortes on UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) resources, with investment in international development reduced by half.

If this undermines the infrastructure that was crucial to the success of vaccination in the UK, as appears to be the case, then the newly founded Agency for Research and Invention (ARIA) risks becoming a costly distraction. In the US, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) model, which ARIA is inspired by, has been a great success precisely because it is located in a vibrant and decentralized research infrastructure, supported by public investment in science, which the Biden government intends to increase.

The fact that such UK research cuts are happening during a global pandemic is a worrying sign about Johnson's priorities. When he spoke of greed, he identified what is wrong with the system – not what deserves praise. A vaccine alone will not be enough to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and the UK will not be safe from Covid-19 until the majority of the global population is vaccinated. It is extremely difficult to see how greed will help to ensure that the vaccine will be made available to all people, in all countries, free of charge.

Addressing the monopoly of pharmaceutical companies on science, on know-how and technology, and sharing this with as many countries as possible will be essential to scaling up and decentralizing vaccine production around the world. The World Health Organization has established a Covid-19 Technology Access Network (C-Tap) to enable governments and businesses to do just that. In addition, South Africa and India submitted a proposal to the WHO, supported by more than 100 countries, to temporarily lift the intellectual property rights of technologies related to Covid. A recent poll showed that 74% of Britons support such positions. In response, the government ignored C-tap and blocked the temporary uprising in intellectual property.

When greed is the guiding philosophy of a government, a “vaccine apartheid” is all but guaranteed. So far, 56% or more of the 455 million vaccine doses have gone to rich countries and only 0.1% have been administered in the 29 poorest countries. Covax, which aims to vaccinate up to 27% of the population in 92 of the poorest countries, is unlikely to do it alone.

Having been successful in its own vaccination programme, the UK must now be a strong base in helping to deliver a People's Vaccine to the world. The British government's pledge to donate surplus vaccines is a start, but it is far from enough. Strong leadership and hope are needed. Instead, however, the Prime Minister seems to hold the anachronistic and counterproductive view that capitalism and greed are what will vaccinate the world and help rebuild it after the pandemic.

*Mariana Mazzucato is professor of economics at the University of Sussex (USA). She is the author, among other books, of the entrepreneurial state (Company of Letters).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published by the newspaper The Guardian.


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