Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Pathfinders: Virus Wars: New Hope and Phantom Menace (2020)

The Pathfinders Column from the December 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sometimes a news story changes so fast that the dailies can’t keep up, never mind monthlies like the Socialist Standard. So it was with the November announcements in quick succession of impressive early results for a number of Covid vaccines.

As we go to press conclusive results are not yet available, and more results are expected imminently from other vaccines in Phase 3 trials, so the true pros and cons of any vaccine can’t yet be assessed.

Many of these vaccines already existed in other forms and have been repurposed, nonetheless the speed of development has been stunning, given that the previous record was five years. The Oxford Vaccine Group, soon to announce results, has a video explaining how the trick was managed. It emphasises how human cooperation, rather than competition, has accelerated the process. Meanwhile the BBC offers a cuddly video to reassure us that safety tests are paramount and that ‘the World Health Organization (WHO) is helping to make sure all countries have equal access to a vaccine, no matter who discovers it or how much money they’re willing to pay for it’.

So it’s almost like socialism, then, with private interests flung aside for the greater good, nation joining hands unto nation in a single humanitarian vision, and never mind the profits? Er, not exactly. Vaccine manufacturers are projected to make billions, while the UK Chancellor, tipped as the next PM, is also allegedly making a fat wad out of it that he refuses to disclose details of (Guardian, 17 November –). The WHO is anyway a voluntary body with no authority to make sure of anything. Despite certain pharma companies volunteering to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) rights (Moderna) or sell at cost (Oxford/AstraZeneca), there’s no compulsion to do so, and the WHO’s attempts to get countries to sign up to their Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), which would waive all IP rights for all Covid products, has not found a single taker. Meanwhile requests by some developing countries for blanket Covid patent waivers have been opposed by first-world countries for whom IP comes first and cooperation second (Medicalexpress.com, 6 November – LINK).

Still, the results are a blast of new hope, which may help to de-mast support for the notorious Great Barrington Declaration, a ‘focused protection and let her rip’ charter that emerged in October as a libertarian, laissez-faire response to the pandemic. One of the originators of this is a bona-fide professor of epidemiology, while another is a professor of medicine, and their proposal seems motivated by the huge amount of suffering caused by lockdowns, especially among poor people. But the ripples they made in the scientific pond were obliterated by an avalanche of boulders, from the WHO downwards, that branded ‘let her rip’ as unscientific, reckless, ‘amazingly irresponsible’, ‘a dangerous mix of pixie dust and pseudoscience’, or simply ‘fucking stupid’, to quote only the more temperate responses. One major problem is the possible millions of extra deaths involved, and another, that individual immunity does not necessarily prevent transmission, which would defeat the whole point (New Scientist, 14 October). Less charitable critics have pointed to the fact that the organisation sponsoring the Declaration is a right-wing libertarian think-tank funded by the climate denialist Koch Foundation (Science-Based Medicine, 12 October).

Which brings us to the phantoms menacing in the shadows of this supposedly cooperative global effort. In October a row blew up after the Times quoted a whistleblower who claimed to have been involved in a Russian-backed campaign to discredit the UK’s Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which uses a ‘cold’ chimp virus, by saying it would turn people into monkeys. The aim was allegedly to ‘target countries where Russia wants to sell its own Sputnik V vaccine’, which is one of those showing early promise despite jumping the gun in order to announce first (Times, 16 October).

The Times followed this up with a report that the spooks at GCHQ are using an anti-ISIS toolkit to tackle anti-vaxxer disinformation emanating from the bogeymen in Moscow, which included assertions that ‘vaccines were unnecessary and pushed for profit reasons’, that vaccines contained ‘a brain debilitating agent, or a gene that renders women infertile’, or that vaccines were a plot by the Gates Foundation ‘to control humans by inserting microchips into them’ (9 November). How exactly these scare-stories would help Russia sell its own vaccine to the west, the Times did not explain.

Anti-vaxxer propaganda, wherever it comes from, could undermine global health strategies now that there are potential vaccines on the horizon, especially when numerous polls have suggested that a very large minority would refuse to take a vaccine if offered (Newsweek, 29 September).

In the UK, fact-checking organisations have been gearing up for a full-frontal assault by anti-vaxxers on any national vaccination programme, probably by playing on fears that the vaccines have been fast-tracked and that long-term side-effects are unknown. Full Fact stated that ‘due to the magnitude of the pandemic, pre-existing conspiracy theories have now been attached to Covid-19’, and speculating that ‘we will see many of the same claims being ramped up – the claims that this was part of a plot to force a vaccination on the population’ (ITV news, 10 November).

Labour has called for emergency laws to ‘stamp out dangerous’ anti-vaxxer online content ‘exploiting people’s fears, their mistrust of institutions and governments and spreading poison and harm’ (BBC online, 15 November). This may be unwise however. Ban anything, and people tend to want it more. Conversely, make a vaccine compulsory, and anti-vaxxer views will skyrocket.

What can socialists make of all these shenanigans, given that we can’t necessarily trust what we’re being told and we don’t know what we’re not being told? We can only look at the available evidence and weigh the balance of probabilities. Long-term side-effects may perhaps be a risk, but not as big as short-term death. Yes, big pharma shareholders will profit, but that’s the only way capitalism can get anything done. There may be politicians on Orwellian power trips but they were far from welcoming scientific advice for more lockdowns. Globally the places with the fewest restrictions have tended to suffer the most, such as Sweden with a death rate ten times that of its neighbours (LINK). Capitalism has almost crippled itself in the fight against Covid, including buying up hundreds of millions of potentially worthless vaccine doses, when cold economic logic might have suggested ‘let her rip’ and let the cards fall as they may.

That there’s no conspiracy behind all this is surely demonstrated by the incoherence, incompetence and sheer panic evinced by so many governments. Yet the rosy public narrative of cooperative capitalist nations selflessly working together is in some ways just as much of a phantom.
Paddy Shannon

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