The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Vaccine Development Determined by Profit

Oct 30, 2023

A very effective vaccine against tuberculosis, one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, could have been developed more than five years ago and potentially saved tens of millions of lives. But, the owner of this vaccine, a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical giant, GSK (formerly GlaxoSmithKline), chose not to invest in its development because GSK could not lucratively profit from its sales.

An estimated 2 billion people are infected with tuberculosis globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Around 13 million people in the U.S. live with tuberculosis infection in their lungs. The vaccine called BCG, developed a hundred years ago, protects young children against tuberculosis. But the immunity that this old vaccine provides wanes over time, and its effectiveness is also quite low against getting infected. As a result, if you have a weakened immune system, you will get sick with tuberculosis.

In early-stage clinical trials, GSK’s new vaccine prevented over half of those infected with tuberculosis from getting sick, the most significant tuberculosis vaccine breakthrough in a century. This new vaccine took its boosted effectiveness from an ingredient extracted from the bark of a tree growing in Chile.

The U.S. government scientists, not GSK, developed this revolutionary technology. After learning it from the government scientists, GSK developed a vaccine against tuberculosis by using the same tree-bark-derived ingredient. As an icing on the cake, the U.S. government provided the funds for this development.

This work helped GSK to gain the know-how to develop other vaccines resting on the same ingredient. Then, the company started to corner the vaccine market by patenting this concept, and controlling this ingredient’s extraction process and raw materials associated with the vaccine preparation. As a result, GSK developed a monopoly on the vaccines that contained this ingredient.

GSK knew tuberculosis primarily affects large numbers of people in low-income countries, and selling the tuberculosis vaccine worldwide was, therefore, not profitable. Instead, GSK developed a vaccine against shingles, containing the same tree-bark-derived ingredient, to target the world’s most profitable vaccine market, the United States. Shingles afflicts large numbers of mostly older people who, in the U.S., are covered mainly by government insurance. So, GSK found a vast captive market funded by our tax money. GSK’s shingles vaccine became what the company calls a “crown jewel,” extracting more than $14 billion from us since 2018.

A tuberculosis vaccine could also have been developed at the same time. But GSK consciously blocked its development through the monopoly it created, condemning tens of millions of people to an early death.

Companies gain market control of revolutionary inventions initiated by government-funded organizations and use such inventions to extract profits from our lives and health. Such acts are barbarism at its best.