A stock photo of an mRNA vaccine. Credit: Spencer Davis / Unsplash

Big-time capitalists have rarely lacked a certain hubris. Because they’re good at one thing, usually making money, they think they’re wise in all things. So Henry Ford published The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, for which he eventually apologized, formally anyway.

Albert Bourla, Pfizer CEO, now has his place in the hubris firmament. He’s glad his firm is making stratospheric profits, but is “even more satisfied when I go into a restaurant and get a standing ovation because everybody feels that we saved the world.”

Winnie Byanyima, who runs the UN program on AIDS, says, “He hasn’t saved the world. He could have done it but he hasn’t.” By depriving Africa of vaccines in order to sate rich countries — a strategy that has now rebounded on everyone via Omicron — Bourla may even have imperilled the world.

Anyway, it isn’t Pfizer who created its jabs. It’s the mRNA obsessives at BioNTech, who stuck with their vision till Pfizer latched onto them. “It’s not even their vaccine,” said a former U.S. official. Getting it known as the Pfizer shot is “the biggest marketing coup in the history of American pharmaceuticals.”

And if you really want to get into the weeds, who’s actually behind the breakthrough? It would’ve been impossible without math. So who invented math? Ancient Sumerians? Ancient Greeks like Euclid? Ancient Chinese (the decimal system!)? For that matter, who invented language, and metallurgy?

When you get down to it, what’s behind advances like mRNA jabs is the totality of human creativity. The notion that it’s a few mostly Western smart guys and creative geniuses is part of the prevailing mythology of individualism, private property, great artists etc. Put it down, instead, to human creativity. (If I sound a bit nutty here myself, I admit I’ve been obsessing about this for much of my adult life.)

Business titans like Pfizer can do at least as much harm to humanity as good, due to their blinkered focus on profit and their chokehold on technologies like mRNA. The business press can be adorably childlike on this subject. “Ironically,” says one newsletter citing a Peterson Institute maven, “given its impact on the global economy and supply chains, eradicating COVID is not something the market is incentivized to do.” Ironically my ass. That’s the cold essence of running a humungous corporation.

The point isn’t that such companies are evil. (They often are, but that’s a separate point.) It’s that they’re vast businesses and will usually — no, inevitably — be driven by profit, not humanitarian or ethical considerations, up to and including species extinction. It’s the iron logic of their existence. They literally cannot stop themselves.

It’s why a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver removing their patent control (though they could still profit via “compulsory licensing”) should be imposed on them by bodies not dominated by profit requirements, i.e., by governments.

The stakes are vast. Nigeria has 1.7 per cent of its 200 million people vaccinated. Doesn’t that scare hell out of you? Nor is it a “mere” matter of deaths. Lives, too, are being blighted, especially among the young. They sense the loss of their youth.

OK, but in the absence of profit incentives, what could motivate advances like vaccines and their costly development? Well, (to keep the focus narrow) the Salk vaccine for polio wasn’t patented. Why? Jonas Salk felt it belonged to “the people.” Perhaps he wasn’t being a saint, but instead valued the esteem of his fellow humans, or of history. It still worked and polio was eradicated.

Socialism then? Ugh, if you mean the wretched Soviet version. But I can’t resist quoting Che Guevara, the revolutionary who helped win Cuba’s freedom. He once addressed an audience that included Marxists who probably felt socialism was as unavoidable, due to “material historical” forces as, according to others, the profit motive is. “At the risk of seeming ridiculous,” Che mused, “let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” So there’s that.

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.