The AstraZeneca Company, once famous only within its sector and in the places where its plants are, has now developed a global profile as a result of developing a controversial COVID-19 vaccine. Suddenly everyone is an expert on the company, saying “AstraZeneca” in the same tone they use to say “Fourth of July” or “Lamingtons” when talking to people they know very well don’t automatically get their references
Where AstraZeneca is a presence, the locals do know about it. AstraZeneca pharmaceutical plants are often significant local employers, and shinier versions of car plants or central post offices. In its native Sweden you see the AstraZeneca logo everywhere, much as you would see Ford or McDonalds in any Western country.
But like many large companies, it was an employer and a building, not a reality for those who weren’t directly connected with it. In this respect it resembles The Mafia, which most people even in areas it is known to operate in will never have direct personal experience of.
This does not mean that AstraZeneca, or any other company of whom this could be said, is a criminal organisation. It is however a part of our culture we should be more aware of. Most of vaccine problems, are those of imagine and trust, so we are told.
There is a reason the “AstraZeneca vaccine”, invented at the University of Oxford, was given to this company whose global headquarters is in Cambridge, the last place anyone from Oxford University would be seen dead in.
For all its good and valuable work, it is not primarily there to help people – or to be more accurate, it is there to help those few who love going on about “the people” when they pretend those people agree with them, to cover the crimes they commit against those who do not.
AstraZeneca is a global company with a multinational workforce. However it is described as “British-Swedish” because it was formed by a merger of the Swedish company Astra AB and the British company Zeneca.
We can all name some famous Swedish companies. Volvo, Ikea, Saab, Ericsson, Spotify and many others have become so much part of the global marketplace they have been adopted as parts of the communities where their products are used. When people think of these products, they don’t automatically think of Viking hats in the same way many people think of Communism when they see Chinese food stores.
This sort of recognition has enabled Sweden, a famously socialistic country cut off by language and many aspects of its culture from the rest of the world, to become a highly successful capitalist country. AstraZeneca Sweden staff go home at 3.30 p.m., and large numbers of stealth taxes have to be levied to pay for public services due to the entrepreneurial spirit of the Swedish population.
So does this mean Sweden is more innovative, harder working or better at marketing than other countries which make the same goods? No. International trade doesn’t work that way.
However much the economic gurus of today talk about “free markets”, for whom are they free? In classical liberal theory, the consumer rather than the producer should be sovereign. But that only works if the consumer has unlimited choice, and as every developing country knows, the more opportunities arise to widen that choice, the more restrictive the controllers of the system become.
Swedish companies don’t offer the competitive advantages of East European companies, in terms of salaries and trained workers. If you put all the people left high and dry by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc back to work in their old jobs, you’d have all the manufacturing skills and innovation you could want, for a world which still needs the products which Sweden contributes. The technical investment necessary to achieve this is still cost-effective compared to expanding operations in countries with higher salary and benefit levels, and the expectations which go with that.
You get Swedish products because you are allowed to access those and not others. While Swedish companies have made the most of the opportunities opened for them, it wasn’t economics which created those. It was political deals, disguised as trade deals, which give consumers something like what they want because they don’t know exactly what that is, only the variants they can use to form opinions.
People in Africa want clean water and fresh fruit. Millions of them. The market force is there. They also have the raw materials to meet the needs of consumers in richer countries, as the Fairtrade movement has starkly demonstrated, and can develop the relevant manufacturing and distribution networks if they don’t already exist.
But that doesn’t happen for the same reason racism towards Swedes is seen differently to racism towards Pakistanis. Sweden has made the political deals to ensure it is the place when consumer demand has a chance of being met, whilst more competitive countries are told they are too lazy or backward to do it.
Astra was able to merge with Zeneca because there was political will behind it. Zeneca came into existence as part of the breakup of the giant Imperial Chemical Industries, or ICI, whose corporate structure was too reminiscent of the past for 1980s economic thinking. It was a new type of unfettered, cut and thrust pharmaceutical company in an area where regulation is vital to protect both consumers and the companies themselves
Astra and Zeneca didn’t have to merge for economic or scientific reasons. Sweden bought into the modern political thinking, whilst still maintaining it was different and above that, whilst the British did vice versa.
None of this has anything to do with improving pharmaceutical production, or health, or even profits. It ensures there is a broader base to the political power behind the pharmaceutical industry, but expands it so it doesn’t get any broader unless that base says so.
We might call it the Uruguayan model – the liberals open up the system for their friends and close it to everyone else. If you want to preach the free market but maintain you are being democratic, get the Swedes involved. If you want to do the opposite, get the British – then give yourselves advantages which are not economically competitive, but prevent that competition from existing by pretending to be all of it.
Gekko in Doctor’s Clothing
Boris Johnson has been caught saying to his backbenchers that the success of the UK in obtaining COVID vaccines and rolling them out is due to “capitalism and greed”. His government has also approved the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, without acknowledging it is actually a British invention, or that a joint UK-Swedish company is a concrete example of UK-EU partnership.
The reference to “capitalism and greed” is not meant to remind people of the Thatcher and Reagan years, though that is where these ideas were given new and flashy dimensions. They are a coded way of saying, “Brexit Britain doesn’t need the EU and its regulations, it can survive on its own in the marketplace”.
The EU is in the middle of a vaccine crisis. Far fewer citizens of EU countries have been vaccinated, per head, than in the UK and US. This is what Johnson is talking about – the UK has vaccinated more people, and this is a success of his government and a failure of the EU.
The EU has laws about state support for private companies – it is not allowed, except in rare circumstances, as it would give certain companies an unfair advantage in their so-called free market. The UK and US governments pumped billions into AstraZeneca, in a form of undeclared state support, in a bid to get a vaccine developed.
Even if AstraZeneca’s vaccine was free, which it is not, the company is still a commercial enterprise. It is impossible to segment the billions of state support it has received into purely non-profit operations, as the commercial side of the business will also benefit from, or be damaged by, the vaccine development programme and its rollout, in many tangible and intangible ways.
So it appears the UK government is behaving like socialists by pumping public funds into developing a vaccine which is then given to people. But if capitalism and greed and responsible, a commercial deal has been done in exchange for these billions – if the whole programme goes belly up, AstraZeneca will still be compensated with contracts for other work which will enable these governments to recoup the money invested, even if these contracts were issued without legal fair competition.
At the same time, Italian police have raided a company near Rome and found millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine “hidden” there. Though exact numbers cannot be confirmed as yet, it is likely that more doses were found than have actually been sent to EU countries.
While some EU countries have suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the EU is still complaining about the shortfall in deliveries. It has even sought to ban exports of the vaccine to the UK, believing that doses intended for EU countries have actually ended up there instead.
Is this what BoJo means by “capitalism and greed” being behind the UK’s apparent vaccine success? Making secret deals for future contracts to recoup the money invested in vaccine development, but making these dependent on subverting existing arrangements with the EU to make Boris look good?
We don’t know this for certain. But if anyone who has seen either Boris Johnson or the EU in action would bet against it, they would have a rare type of idiocy no vaccine would ever be able to cure.
Who Kills More?
The point of a British-Swedish company which works at government level is not to make better products or provide better services. It is to ensure the players decide who can play, and who can’t, whilst pretending the same rules apply to everyone.
Only companies in developed countries, with the right contacts, were chosen to develop a response to the pandemic. As this is a for-profit venture, those companies could have worked with others in the same field in developing countries, or lower income European countries, who have some of the facilities needed and equally qualified scientists and technicians. But everything is kept in the tightest possible circle of approved companies – the same sort that seem to get away with anything.
So we don’t have a vaccine, we have a favour – a succession of back door deals, designed to prevent either fair competition or public oversight, is once again being produced to possibly protect us from a condition which should demand a better approach. We should be trying everything, open to ideas and proposals from any source, and if the solution is for-profit, developing a solution which is both medically effective and cost effective. But what we have is circles protecting their own, and covering up for each other’s mistakes, in the name of public health.
Medicine has a long history of restrictive practice designed to benefit its own members at the expense of everyone else. “Overseas qualified” doctors are not allowed to practice in countries where there is no law against it, unless they do mandatory tests which are not always even legal. In most of Europe it took many years for patients to be allowed to see their own medical records, or know or question the reasoning of those who treated them, simply to keep medical knowledge amongst the qualified few, despite its importance to the public welfare.
There is continuing dispute over what caused the COVID-19 pandemic. But the response to it has one purpose – not to cure the pandemic, but to vaccinate governments and their contractors from the public.
No one in power really wants free choice, free information, or the empowerment of anyone to resolve the COVID-19 pandemic and stop it happening again – unless the solution profits a selected crowd, in financial and reputational terms. People are dying because of this. AstraZeneca should not consent to be a part of such a scam – but if it answered to the public, we wouldn’t even have colds any more.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.