Home > Uncategorized > The preventable horrors of the pandemic and the short case for open research

The preventable horrors of the pandemic and the short case for open research

from Dean Baker and Arjun Jayadev

 The Covid 19 pandemic is once again at an inflection point– with cases now falling sharply in most of the world. The current pandemic may be coming under control, but after millions of preventable deaths,  this is very far from a success story and it is as good  a time as any to take a hard look at our failings, especially with regard to our management of knowledge

Across the world, the number of Covid infections are declining: the United States numbers are finally falling after the Delta variant sent it soaring in the late summer; India-perhaps the hardest hit country in the world where cases peaked at more than 400,000 a day in early May, is now reporting just over 20,000 cases daily, the equivalent of 5,000 a day in the United States. Similar declines can be seen in countries around the world.

This drop worldwide is due to a combination of both the spread of vaccines and, perhaps more importantly, natural immunity arising out of many infections.  According to a New York Times article, for example, the number of infections in India as of early May was likely close to 540 million, when the official count was just 27 million. Since the pandemic was still in full force in the country at the time, an extrapolation would imply 750 to 800 million infections, close to 60 percent of the country’s population.

While such widespread infections might help to contain the pandemic, it came with a horrible human cost.  While the official number of deaths is around 450,000, researchers have estimated likely death tolls in the range of 1.6 million to almost 6 million in urban areas along according to one study. There is a similar story throughout the developing world, where the actual number of infections and deaths hugely exceed the already devastating official statistics.

That this death toll has occurred, even when the world is (rightly) celebrating the rapid development of effective vaccines, means that we have failed badly in getting these vaccines distributed widely around the world. Crucially, this has been a failure of political will, not the lack of capacity to produce and distribute vaccines.

A key feature has been our treatment of knowledge around the development and production of vaccines and medicines more generally. Given the continuing cost of the pandemic globally, enlightened policy should aim to maximize production and dissemination of vaccines and medicines. Instead, we have seen egregious attempts to limit dissemination.

A year ago, South Africa and India proposed a resolution at the World Trade Organization to suspend patents and other intellectual property claims for vaccines, tests, and treatments for the duration of the pandemic. Since that time, the rich countries have been engaged in a filibuster to block any action.

The pharmaceutical industry also claims that the developing world lacks the sophisticated manufacturing facilities needed to produce the Covid vaccines. This is not true, as India, Brazil, South Africa, and several other developing countries have modern facilities that can be used to produce vaccines.

Clearly, for some of the newer technologies (such as mRNA vaccines), such facilities were not immediately available, but getting such facilities up and running by now would almost certainly have been possible had action been taken quickly on the resolution last October. For some of the older technologies, which include highly effective non-mRNA vaccines, capacities exist, but patent protection and the need for licensing limits production even today

IP protections also pose problems beyond vaccines. As new technologies are developed that combat Covid (Merck’s Molnupiravir antiviral is an example), our current system of patent protection will continue to limit access more than is necessary, even with potential licensing agreements. In such cases patents are the only thing standing in the way—the ability to make these life saving drugs already exists in many parts of the world and doing away with restrictions will make them available across the globe much more cheaply.

Patents though are only one part of the problem.  Access to technology remains just as critical. The TRIPS provisions of the WTO were designed to limit the spread of technology to the developing world. The India-South Africa resolution was intended to get around these restrictions, but as was widely noted, much of the necessary technology was protected by industrial secrets, not patents. That would mean that suspending patents by itself, would be of little benefit in spreading production.

Trade secrets have an amorphous protection under law, and maximizing production and distribution requires taking this head on. South Korea back in July announced that they have the capacity to manufacture a billion mRNA vaccines almost immediately, but had not found a firm willing to share their manufacturing knowhow. As three researchers pointed out in August, however, the US could invoke its Defense Production Act (which it has already done in the pandemic) and compel the transfer of technology and knowhow. In addition, it could do so unilaterally.

An additional remedy would be to prevent non-disclosure agreements (NDA) at least in technologies largely funded by the public sector. NDAs protect industrial secrets by threatening any employee who discloses information with serious lawsuits. If NDAs are banned as an anti-competitive practice, the threats from companies against former employees, to protect their secrets, would be meaningless.

In general, and in a global health emergency in particular we should be looking to share technology as widely as possible, not locking it up behind patent monopolies and other protections. A worldwide pandemic should have been an occasion for the world’s scientists, including those from China and Russia, to work collectively to confront a common problem.

The cost has not just been borne by the developing world. By allowing the pandemic to spread largely unchecked in the developing world, we gave it the opportunity to mutate into more vaccine resistant forms that will continue to reverberate in the months and years to come. The Delta variant developed in India last December.

We may never know if a more rapid rollout of vaccines and widespread testing could have contained it before it spread around the world, but the human and economic costs of this spread have been enormous. Also, the US and other wealthy countries continue to feel the economic impact of the spread in the developing world. Factory shutdowns in places like Vietnam and Malaysia have been a major factor in supply chain difficulties that are now macroeconomic concerns. Making knowledge available, much more easily deployable, and widely shared is not simply a moral imperative, but is in the overall self-interest of everyone, everywhere.

  1. Daniel Linotte
    October 12, 2021 at 4:50 pm

    Indeed, more could have been done – from the very beginning of the crisis.
    See, for instance:

    Click to access ASM.MS.ID.555660.pdf

  2. Ikonoclast
    October 13, 2021 at 9:54 pm

    What the post says is all true in itself but the intellectual and moral poverty of capitalism goes far deeper. Also, our systemic problems and our real problems in the real world go far deeper. The spread of COVID-19 around the world was, in human terms, completely unnecessary and, in technical epidemiological terms, completely avoidable. However, the circuits of capital required, indeed demanded, that COVID-19 spread as far as possible. That is to say, those in charge of the circuits of capital required and demanded that this happen. What those in charge required and demanded was that trade and people movements continue unabated, at the critical starting juncture of the pandemic. They could neither envisage nor countenance the closing of these circuits. The system itself, as an interconnected mono-system was not design-capable of running in any other fashion than as a interconnected mono-system desgined not for human or real outcomes but for the funneling of money up to the rich. That is to say, it was not capable of such changes anywhere except where socialist principles were in place or re-implemented to greater or lesser extents.

    Wherever COVID-19 was successfully suppressed, if not eradicated, it was achieved by socialist measures. China is the standout success. China failed early, that is true. The outbreak should have been contained and the SARS-CoV-2 virus eradicated at the outset. The socialist parts of China’s system are unfortunately overlaid by aspects of state capitalism, party oligarchy and totalitarianism. The West prefers the aristocracy of money and the rule of capital. China went on to control COVID-19 far better than any other significantly sized nation on earth and to outperform by a factor of the order of 1,000 key Western capitalist nations like the USA and UK. Not only could the capitalist system not protect the third world, it could not even protect itself. Its performance, even with the best vaccines, eventually, was ONE THOUSAND TIMES WORSE THAN CHINA’S. We really ought to ruminate on that.

    One thing this shows is that social performance and cohesion is an immensely more valuable sociopolitcal possession than is “wealth” or money or financial capital. On the above measure, the USA is one thousand times more impoverished than China: more impoverished in the things that matter for social cohesion and human survival.

    Australia had a number of geographical advantages and some luck. Firstly, it is a long way away from most of the rest of the world. Secondly, it is easy to isolate from the rest of the infected world when a nation has a continent entire and a sea moat. Thirdly, having a low population, well spread out, turns out to be an advantage. This includes living mainly in detached dwellings with their own allotment of land. But we must note China had none of these advantages and still outperformed Australia by a significant margin. Insofar as Australia was significantly capitalist it failed too.

    However, to the extent that Australia did relatively well, the reason was what those in the US would call socialist policies. We have a strong socialized medical system and state leaders (Premiers) willing to pursue social policies in defiance of our inhumane, right-wing neoliberal, market fundamentalist federal government. Only this pluralism and our legacy social and socialist programs and policies saved us from far worse outcomes.

    By all means call for democratic socialist policies for open research and global epidemiological controls. Just don’t forget to call for democratic socialist policies for climate change and absolutely every other problem. If we continue with capitalism we destroy ourselves and our world. Capitalism equals collapse. Democratic socialism equals a last chance to save ourselves and the world. Unfortunately, capitalism with its endless sabotage of people and environment may have already done too much damage. We have to hope not and keep pushing to get phase out capitalism.

  3. Ken Zimmerman
    October 19, 2021 at 8:30 am

    Capitalism is a culture. The issue here is what is happening to American culture. Culture  is a system of knowledge,  beliefs,  patterns of behavior,  artifacts, and institutions that are created,  learned,  shared,  and contested by a group of people.  Culture is our manual for understanding and interacting with the people and the world around us.  It includes shared norms,  values,  symbols, mental maps of reality,  and material objects as well as structures of   power— including the media,  education,  religion,  and   politics—  in which our understanding  of  the  world  is  shaped,  reinforced,  and  negotiated.  A  cultural  group may be large or small,  and it may have within it significant diversity of region, religion,  race,  gender,  sexuality,  class,  generation,  and ethnic identity.  It may not be accepted by everyone, even those living in a particular place or time. But ultimately,  the culture that we learn has the potential to shape our ideas of what is normal and natural,  what we can say and do,  and even what we can think.

    Though anthropologists no longer think of culture as a completely separate,  unique possession of a specific group of people,  most argue that a common cultural core exists,  at least among the dominant segments of the culture. Norms, values, symbols, and mental maps of reality are four elements that an anthropologist may consider in attempting to understand  the  complex  workings  of  a  culture. These  are  not  universal;  they  vary from culture to culture. Even within a culture not everyone shares equally in that cultural knowledge,  nor does everyone agree completely on it.  But the elements of a culture powerfully frame what its participants can say, what they can do, and even what they think is possible and impossible,  real or unreal.

    Humans do not genetically inherit culture.  We learn culture throughout our lives from the people and cultural institutions that surround us.  The process of learning culture is called enculturation.  Some aspects of culture  we  learn  through formal  instruction:  English classes in school,  religious instruction,  visits to the doctor,  history lessons,  dance classes.  Other processes of enculturation are informal and even unconscious as we absorb culture from family,  friends,  and the  media.  All humans are  equally capable of  learning culture and of learning any culture to which they are exposed.

    As economic arrangements capitalism is the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Central characteristics of capitalism as culture include unrestrained capital accumulation, idealized competitive markets, a way of life organized around a competitive price system, deification of private property and the recognition of property rights, voluntary exchange and commoditization, and the dominance of wage and rentier relationships.

    A capitalist culture is successful in that like many other cultures it reproduces itself. It protects itself. But any culture may and often does create features harmful to or even destructive of the culture. Capitalism’s particular harms include ever expanding economic (access to the necessary means for survival and ‘the good life’) inequality, pandemic levels of mistrust and psychosis, splintering of non-capitalist alternatives or their recasting into capitalism’s framework, destructive mini-wars and uprisings, continuing pressures to replace or displace democracy with oligarchy, etc. The ‘horrors of which Baker warns us.

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