The Spark

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

The flu vaccine crisis:
An inevitable product of capitalism

Oct 25, 2004

The first flu outbreak of the year has already been reported, from a nursing home in Manhattan – at a time when New York has practically run out of flu vaccine. But even before this official beginning of the flu season, the flu vaccine shortage had already claimed its first victim. On October 14, a 79-year-old woman collapsed and died in northern California after standing in line outside a supermarket for more than five hours to get a flu shot.

All over the country, people have been waiting in line for hours for the limited amount of vaccine available. In Montgomery County, Maryland, where health officials decided to organize a lottery to avoid the long lines, 4500 people had signed up within the first five hours for the 800 shots available.

"I don't understand at all how it's gotten to this point," said a 65-year old cancer patient waiting in line at a supermarket in Tampa, Florida. Many people share her anger. This flu-shot crisis, in the 21st century in the world's wealthiest country, is really like a bad dream. It's here nonetheless, an inevitable product of the capitalist system we live under.

The production and distribution of the flu vaccine is left to private companies, even though these companies are not interested in developing the vaccine themselves. Thus, every winter, the World Health Organization, a United Nations agency financed with taxpayer money, carries out the initial research to develop that year's flu vaccine. But the vaccine is turned over to private companies for mass production – and massive profits!

But profitability also means monopolization, which in turn increases the risk of a shortage in case something goes wrong. That's how half the supply for the entire U.S. market disappeared overnight when the vaccine made by one company was found to be contaminated.

Once there is a shortage, the much-praised "free market" then guarantees that those who get the vaccine are not those who need it the most. So, for example, 2000 doses of the vaccine were available for the 535 members of Congress and their high-ranking staff – and most of them wasted no time to get theirs – at the same time that federal officials, starting with George Bush, were telling elderly Americans waiting in lines "to be patient." Also, those providers who ordered large quantities of the vaccine got theirs delivered while "small-timers" didn't. That's why doctors, who have no vaccine, have been forced to send their patients to supermarkets where people have to wait in line for hours, or to private clinics which don't accept Medicare and charge $25 – or more – for a single shot!

In fact, flu vaccine is being marketed at up to 10 times the normal price these days – at "whatever the capitalist market will bear."

The government has been an accomplice in the whole crisis, from the very beginning. The contamination at Chiron's Liverpool facility was revealed months ago. So the British government bought backup supplies last summer while the Bush administration did nothing – even though it was U.S. inspectors who first discovered the contamination!

In every possible way, and at every stage of its making, this flu vaccine crisis is nothing but a product of the capitalist system. It clearly shows how big a lie it is when we are told that everything is "more efficient" if it's left to private enterprise.