Demonstrators weren't just protesting vaccine patents. They were defying a neoliberal order that uses the luminous products of human intelligence for private exploitation.
The poet Robinson Jeffers once characterized the purveyors of modern greed in direct language: "They'd shit on the morning star if they could reach (it)." We're seeing the consequences of that greed in our land, seas, and skies. We're seeing it in ourselves, too. We're becoming ill and dying in the millions, needlessly. We are the morning stars now, setting on a dying planet.
Last Wednesday, as protesters in Washington DC called on the US to waive patent rights on Covid-19 vaccines, the White House said it would. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai's statement said that "the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures." That's a welcome move during a humanitarian crisis.
It should not be "extraordinary" to waive patent rights to save human lives. In a sane world, it would be extraordinary to do anything else.
But those protesters were calling for more than a one-time waiver. They were fighting for the light of a different planet, a world where life is once again valued over profit. The United States has already lost 600,000 people to the dark star of drug profiteering; the world has lost far more. It should not be "extraordinary" to waive patent rights to save human lives. In a sane world, it would be extraordinary to do anything else.
A drug formula is the product of a naturally evolved human mind, manipulating the physical world until it finds the right outcome. Covid-19 vaccines are a triumph of human brilliance. Their designs are patterns of light on a screen or page, generated by neurons flashing like constellations in the brains of homo sapiens sapiens—the creature who knows that it knows.
From that perspective—the only authentic perspective—it's madness to chain those designs to corporate entities. The government gave exclusive rights to those designs to corporations that neither developed nor financed them. Now, it's letting those corporations charge us for vaccines they did not create. It has yet to release their patents—based on designs that are nothing more than light—to other countries so that lives can be saved.
That's the madness of the ideology known as "neoliberalism," an ideology with its own foundational beliefs and a planet full of powerful acolytes. It says, in effect, that everything—ideas, living things, everything —can be owned by private interests. No, scratch that. It says that everything should be owned by private interests. Its fabulist mythology tells us that these interests will use them more effectively than people can.
How's that working out for you?
The researchers who developed these vaccines were largely educated at public expense. They based their work on publicly-funded discoveries. And, while Pfizer didn't accept US money to develop its vaccine, it took $119 million from the European Commission and European Investment Bank and $445 million from the German government. That's more than half a billion dollars from public sources. Then, the resulting patents were given to private interests. That's how neoliberalism always handles pharmaceutical research, and the long-term death toll is incalculable.
They'd shit on the morning star if they could.
Tai's announcement does not mean that vaccine patents will actually be waived. That's up to the World Trade Organization. The US did not say that backed waiver language introduced at the WTO by South Africa and India, so it's unclear exactly what the it's offering. Many US allies continue to oppose the measure, and the fact it announced its decision through a relatively low-level official suggests that the White House isn't exactly twisting arms on the waiver's behalf —at least, not yet.
The press also made a big fuss over the US government's decision to give away up to 60,000,000 AstraZeneca vaccines to developing countries. But that's a drop in the ocean compared to the need.
The AstraZeneca vaccine reportedly sells for $3 a dose. That means we're spending a miserly $180 million for doses that will vaccinate 30 million people (at two injections each)—on a planet with 7.6 billion people. If India manufactured the vaccines itself, it would cost an estimated 50 cents a dose. If we made the vaccine formula public and gave that $180 million to India, it could produce enough doses to vaccinate 180 million people – six times as many. And it could keep producing vaccines for itself and other countries, alongside factories that stand ready to do this work all around the world. As Sharon Lerner and Lee Fang write, "Factory owners around the globe, from Bangladesh to Canada, have said they stand ready to retrofit facilities and move forward with vaccine production if given the chance."
Instead, India is trapped in a hellish circle: manufacturing drugs for others while being blocked from protecting its own people.
The US announcement also pointedly declared, "The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections." That means the government still supports drug patents, even despite their ongoing death tolls. Our capacity for empathy is apparently still limited.
Those demonstrators weren't just protesting vaccine patents. They were defying a neoliberal order that uses the luminous products of human intelligence for private exploitation. They were fighting to restore the natural ecology of knowledge and freedom. They were calling for a world of light, a world where lifesaving knowledge is freely shared.
They were speaking for the stars, and we would be well served to listen.