Fighting Vaccine Imperialism

Global public health demands a sharing of technology and intellectual property that is at odds with existing corporate capitalism.

Program Note

For the newsletter, I’ve been trying to balance serious, newsy posts with cultural posts that offer a break from our current bleakness. Today the serious post is about vaccine imperialism and the cultural post about a 1946 comic book where the Frankenstein monster tries to become a good capitalist citizen.

Vaccine Imperialism

The reality of Covid-19 is that we’re all in this together. It’s a global pandemic and new variants, that sometimes spread faster and might be more resistant to existing vaccines, are popping up all the time. So it’s in everyones interest for as much of the world to get vaccinated as quickly as possible.

But this public health imperative is at odds with the desire of large pharmaceutical companies to control their intellectual property. As the Financial Times reports, “A measure to allow countries to temporarily override patent rights for pandemic-related medical products was proposed at the World Trade Organization by India and South Africa in October, and has since been backed by almost 60 countries.”

The Trump administration opposed the waiver. The Biden administration is vacillating on the question as it is under cross-pressures from competing political forces, which include not just the drug companies but also political allies like Bernie Sanders who has championed the cause of intellectual property liberalization and making global vaccination a priority.

The Biden administration’s incoherence is most visible in its India policy. Until Sunday, the administration was taking a hardline against sharing needed medical supplies. This shifted on Sunday after intense public criticism. As The New York Times reports, “The Biden administration, under increasing pressure to address a devastating surge of the coronavirus in India, said on Sunday that it had partially lifted a ban on the export of raw materials for vaccines and would also supply India with therapeutics, rapid diagnostic test kits, ventilators and personal protective gear.”

The behaviour of the American government and the drug companies has been called “vaccine apartheid” and “vaccine nationalism.” But I think the term “vaccine imperialism” is closer to the mark. The wrangling over global drug policy is increasingly enmeshed with the great power struggle the United States has with its main rivals, Russia and China.

Significantly, the drug companies themselves are evoking great power rivalry as a rational for strict intellectual property protection. As The Financial Times reports:

Vaccine makers have warned US officials that temporarily scrapping patents for Covid-19 shots would risk handing novel technology to China and Russia, according to people familiar with the talks. 

As industry lobbying has escalated in Washington, companies have warned in private meetings with US trade and White House officials that giving up the intellectual property rights could allow China and Russia to exploit platforms such as mRNA, which could be used for other vaccines or even therapeutics for conditions such as cancer and heart problems in the future.

It’s hard fathom the mindset that believes that China and Russia developing a cure for cancer or heart disease is something to worry about. It suggests a moral system more bizarre than even the Cold War logic of Dr. Strangelove, one where the United States is threatened by a healthier and less disease ridden planet.

A report from South Africa’s Mail and Guardian underscores how the pharmaceutical companies are using their control of essential vaccines to pressure governments in the global South. According to the newspaper, Pfizer “has backed down over its controversial demand that the South African government put up sovereign assets guaranteeing an indemnity against the cost of any future legal cases.”

Not just with South Africa but with many poorer countries, Pfizer has been demanding concessions not that threaten national sovereignty. According to The Mail and Guardian, “The company required some Latin American governments to put up sovereign assets, including federal bank reserves, embassy buildings or military bases — as a guarantee against indemnifying the cost of future legal cases.”

This hardball bargaining suggests the shape of the emerging vaccine imperialism, where a monopoly on vaccine production will be used as leverage for Western corporations to dominate over pharmaceutical policy making in poorer countries.

The political left has a key role to play in this looming struggle: its crucial for figures like Bernie Sanders to continue to hold Biden’s feet to the fire and make sure drug policies are guided by actual health concerns and not the economic needs of corporate America. But Sanders won’t be able to win this fight on his own. Fighting vaccine imperialism is going to have to become a major focus of organizing.

Mental Health Break: How Frankenstein Became a Capitalist

Among the pioneering comic book artists, Dick Briefer (1915-1980) was the Frankenstein specialist. He drew the monster (which he in violation of canon he just called Frankenstein) off and on in various modes from 1940 to 1954. Initially, the monster was scary, rampaging through New York. Then he became a heroic Nazi fighter. After the war, Briefer’s version of the monster transformed into a loveable goofball. In Briefer’s last period, the cycle returned full circle with the monster resuming his identity a frightening abomination in Briefer.

I’m particularly fond of the comedic monster that Briefer gave the world from 1945-1948. Briefer’s art for these comics was hyperbolically expressive, with all the characters loose limbed and overflowing with a giddy vitality. The monster himself, with his perpetually upturned nose stuck somewhere above his eyes and his head as flat a tabletop, was the grotesque embodiment of screwball derangement. Briefer had a galvanizing disregard for anatomy or indeed any natural laws.

Screwball humor is a kind of vernacular surrealism, offering an escape from the tyranny of the mimetic. Briefer’s stories existed in no plausible representation of three dimensional space but rather in a world of playful design.

In Frankenstein #3 (July-August 1946) there is a story titled “Frankenstein’s Family” which proves to be an unexpected commentary on post-war capitalism, consumerism, patriarchy and the baby boom. (The story was written by Briefer and Bruce Elliott, while the drawings were by Briefer).

The story opens with the monster reading a National Association of Manufacturer (NAM) pamphlet on the “Future of America.” Showing an image of a happy nuclear family by the fireside, the pamphlet promises, “This can be you! Only competition, capitalism and rugged individualism make all this possible.” The monster marvels at the promise that “every lad who starts out as an office boy is bound, under our fine system of rugged individualism, to end up as president of the company!!”

Dreaming of becoming a capitalist bigwig and paterfamilias, the monster goes to work for a junk dealer, who gives our hero not just a job but also manufactures a large family for him of many sons and a wife.

Unfortunately, the members of the synthetic family created by the junkman are extremely shoddy and brittle, quick to pop like a balloon at the contact with any sharp object. The sons start popping into oblivion as does the wife. Even a second wife made by the junkman quickly bursts like a bubble.

The story ends with the monster alone and the junkman reinventing himself as a wealthy manager of a magic show that specializes in disappearing women. The capitalist dream sold to the monster ends up being better at creating illusions and profits for the wealthy than lasting domestic contentment. The capitalist dream of the male bread-winner as head of a happy home and hearth turns out to be a nightmare, not least because it turns women and children into disposable consumer items. For a loopy comic book sold to kids for ten cents in 1946, the story turns out to have surprising resonance.

A few historical facts help illuminate this story: the real life National Association of Manufacturers did publish many pro-capitalist pamphlets as part of the post-war push against the New Deal. Dick Briefer moonlighted as a cartoonist for The Daily Worker , doing an anti-fascist strip called Pinky Rankin. The historian Ron Goulart speculates Briefer was blacklisted for his left-wing politics from the comic book industry in the early 1950s. That’s when Briefer stopped writing and drawing comics (although he made a brief reappearance in a romance comic in 1960).

Briefer’s comedic Frankenstein monster stories are available in this volume from Dark Horse.