Photo: Vial of COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Lisa Ferdinando (Wikimedia Commons)
Reports widely circulated in April that 15 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been spoiled in a Baltimore production facility in what is being referred to in headlines as a “mix-up” or “human error.” With coronavirus cases once again trending upward in the United States, it is especially important to examine the systemic causes of this waste of badly-needed vaccine doses.
American pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna expect to reap tens of billions of dollars in sales of their vaccines this year. Public funds have been provisioned by the U.S. government’s questionably named “Warp Speed” project to pay private, for-profit pharma companies to produce vaccines. Emergent BioSolutions is a contractor that handles the actual creation of doses for both Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca in Emergent’s problematic Baltimore facility.
Subcontracting is common in government-funded projects. Because the larger corporation and the subcontracted firm each have to make a profit, the public ends up paying a high price not only in terms of dollars, but also in terms of quality. This is the anarchy of capitalist production, where many different and parallel projects are conducted when what is really needed is a single focused effort.
The specific problem that resulted in the ruin of 15 million vaccine doses was the consequence of one contractor handling two different vaccines at the same facility. Ingredients from one vaccine were mixed with ingredients from the other, wasting time and a conservatively estimated $150 million.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has known about problems at the Baltimore Emergent plant since before the company was contracted to produce COVID-19 vaccines. Most of the deficiencies cited in FDA investigation reports from 2020 indicate the lack of rigor that capitalism incentivizes with its “race to the bottom” profit motive: lax safety practices, missing documentation, and little-to-no training for workers in a facility that allegedly specializes in manufacturing life-saving medicines! This is “efficiency” of the capitalist type: Companies spend as little as possible in the sphere of production, and safety is secondary to profitability.
But how was Emergent even allowed to produce crucially needed vaccines when the government already knew about these problems? The individual in charge of the matter who awarded Emergent the “Warp Speed” contract happens to have worked for Emergent in the past. Robert Kadlec, former assistant secretary of the Department for Health and Human Services, previously worked as a consultant for Emergent and is also a business partner in a different venture with Emergent’s chairman. This is the ruling class’s revolving door between industry and government. In many countries it is called corruption and can land one in prison, but in the United States it is legal and they call it “lobbying.”
The FDA and White House both declined to comment on the loss of 15 million vaccines at their preferred for-profit facility.