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By Cutting Big Pharma Out of Vaccine Production, We Can Help Neutralize Anti-Vaxx Paranoia

The anti-vaxx movement is a menace, but it feeds off public distrust nurtured by the appalling record of Big Pharma. We need an alternative model that strips out the profit motive and works for the public good — Canada’s Connaught Laboratories show how that model could work.

There is no better time than the present to nationalize vaccine production. (Flickr)

On December 9, Health Canada announced their approval of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine. This made Canada the third country to do so, after the United Kingdom and Bahrain. The same day this news broke, Kyle Kemper, half brother of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, appeared on the front page of the National Post to decry the vaccination campaign.

Described in the newspaper’s profile as an “antivaxxer, Bitcoin entrepreneur and Trudeau’s ‘affectionate’ critic,” Kemper is a wealthy, right-wing libertarian drawn straight from central casting. His fears about the “great reset and vaccines align comfortably with his passion for cryptocurrency, and suspicion of corporations and government. On his Facebook page, he describes COVID-19 vaccines as an “experimental concoction.”    

Of course, not all anti-vaxxers are wealthy half-siblings of world leaders. The anti-vaxxer movement in its most recognizable form — composed of groups with a strong social media presence that are engulfed in conspiracy theories and fake science — has been growing in Canada for the last decade. According to Wellcome Global Monitor, almost 50 percent of Canadians are “vaccine hesitant.”

A survey in July found that only 47 percent of Canadians plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Eleven percent said they weren’t sure, and a full 15 percent declared that they “likely wouldn’t.” Throughout the pandemic, anti-vaxxers have figured prominently in the numerous anti-mask, anti-lockdown marches across the country that have brought thousands of people onto the streets, from Toronto to Calgary and Montreal.

Vaccines have helped prevent an “estimated 2.5 million child deaths every year.” They offer a safe and cost-effective way to protect children and adults from diseases like diphtheria, measles, tetanus, and whooping cough.

Vaccine hesitancy, meanwhile, is increasingly being linked to measles outbreaks — a virus that was considered eliminated in 2000. In the United States and beyond, according to the Lancet, skepticism about vaccines is “reversing decades of progress.”

In 2019, vaccine hesitancy was ranked eighth on the World Health Organization’s list of the top ten threats to global health. The public health cost of the growing anti-vaxxer movement is high — especially at this crucial moment, when a way to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be within reach.

While their opinions are odious, frustrating, and dangerous, it would be counterproductive to simply write off all the anti-vaxxers as irredeemable conspiracy theorists, or to engage with their views only through condescension and virtue signaling. To deal with anti-vaxx sentiment effectively, we need to address its causes, from botched studies to the malfeasance of Big Pharma.

Cooking the Books

In 1998, the Lancet published an infamous — and now thoroughly debunked — “autism” study by Andrew Wakefield, connecting measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) to instances of autism in children. It took twelve years for the esteemed medial publication to formally retract its article. Wakefield lost his medical license.

Britain’s General Medical Council concluded that “the children that Wakefield studied were carefully selected and some of Wakefield’s research was funded by lawyers acting for parents who were involved in lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers.” But the damage to trust in vaccinations had already been done.

Wakefield’s “research” has been foundational for the Green Our Vaccines (GOV) movement, which advocates the removal of “toxins” from vaccines. Amplified by the uninformed opinions of high-profile celebrities, GOV has helped generate suspicion of vaccine safety and of the pharmaceutical industry more broadly.

The anti-vaxx movement is politically diverse. It captures the hearts of hippy-dippy-types on the left, as well as libertarian prepper types on the right. As a predominantly online phenomenon, it expands its reach through social media snowball effects. Such material proliferates in ideological silos, making anti-vaxx counterarguments unconvincing to adherents of the movement.

Yet social media echo chambers, fake science, and the influence of celebrities don’t explain the prevalence of vaccine skepticism by themselves. It is no coincidence that anti-vaxxer sentiment has mushroomed in tandem with a succession of Big Pharma scandals.

In recent years, Big Pharma corporations have been responsible for innumerable crimes against the common good. They have engaged in wanton price hikes and gouging on old drugs, and filed lawsuits against governments that have tried to restrain their unethical practices.

They have deliberately misled both the public and medical practitioners about the addictiveness of their products, while bribing doctors and insurers to prescribe opioids. This catalogue of deceit and wrongdoing goes on and on.

In an interview with the Stranger, the leader of a prominent Washington state anti-vaxx group referred explicitly to this ignoble track record: “I know vaccines are designed to protect children from infection, but they are pharmaceutical products made by the same companies that make opioids.”

Though their beliefs are deeply misguided, anti-vaxxers are not wrong to accuse Big Pharma of profiting from the collective misery of its consumer base. Their literature may contain outlandish conspiracy theories — for example, accusing companies of putting monkey kidneys in vaccines — but such theories draw strength from real-life examples of almost cartoonishly evil behavior on the part of those firms.

It’s reasonable to ask: would vaccine skepticism be so widespread if vaccines were provided by an industry that hadn’t obliterated public trust? Such a model is no pipe dream — we can find a functioning example on Canadian soil within living memory.

A Public Alternative

In 1914, Connaught Labs was founded in Toronto. A publicly owned, non-commercial enterprise, Connaught manufactured diphtheria treatments and distributed it for free. It also produced insulin, which it sold at cost or near-cost.

After the Second World War, the organization branched out into polio research to fight the epidemic raging across North America. It received substantial public funding from both the Canadian and US governments. In the battle against polio, Connaught worked with Jonas Salk, who had made headway on a vaccine in the United States, but lacked the capacity to test and produce it on a large scale.

Connaught’s scientists were up to the task. They developed the “Toronto method” — a technique for mass manufacturing Salk’s vaccine — and assisted with the field studies needed for testing it effectively and safely.

However, just as the US vaccination campaign got started, it was temporarily derailed in 1955 by the “Cutter incident” — one of the few episodes of its kind in vaccine history. After being granted the license to manufacture Salk’s vaccine in the United States, Cutter Laboratories produced a hundred twenty thousand doses of a botched version that contained live polio virus. Two hundred thousand children received the Cutter formula: it caused forty thousand cases of the virus, leading to two hundred instances of paralysis and ten deaths.

Following this disaster, the United States halted its vaccination program. But Canada pushed on with its own campaign, and public confidence in Connaught’s high-quality product helped make it possible for US polio immunization to resume before long. The lab’s reputation neutralized what might otherwise have been an inflection point for anti-vaxx sentiment. The polio vaccination campaign proved to be a success because of Connaught’s production model.

Connaught Labs was initially affiliated with the University of Toronto, but later became an independent body within it — a self-sufficient research and production facility that relied on government funding and its own profits. However, despite its achievements in the first half of the century, the lab was sold off in 1972 to the Canada Development Corporation (CDC), a federally managed organization for helping Canadian private sector businesses to grow.

The CDC shifted Connaught’s mandate from public health to profitability. Following price increases on inputs — and with public funding no longer available — Connaught was forced to increase the price of its products. Operating in the private sector, the lab found itself squeezed by international competitors, particularly Eli Lilly, whose scale outpaced its own.

By the 1980s, Connaught’s leading role in insulin production was over. It was fully privatized in 1986 after Canada’s then prime minister Brian Mulroney shut down the CDC. Today, as part of Sanofi Pasteur, the former Connaught brand is still involved in vaccine production and other medical work, but along the same for-profit lines as the rest of the industry, with no public-utility orientation.

The distinctive model of Connaught Labs may have been stood down, but Cuba offers an ongoing example of the potential benefits from public ownership of pharmaceutical production. Cuba’s public biopharma sector has ensured that its medical products remain affordable. The island nation’s high public trust in vaccines — and the extensive vaccine knowledge amongst its population — also stand in stark contrast with the spread of vaccine skepticism in Canada and the United States.

A Vaccine for Anti-Vaxxers

What if the Connaught Labs had remained intact? And what if public pharmaceutical production had been generalized to other countries as well, removing the profit motive from the sector?

The Connaught Lab model could link the public research and public money that made a COVID-19 vaccine possible to a public producer that prioritizes fair, universal access, instead of making that research and funding available to companies interested in the bottom line. As Linda McQuaig notes: “Roughly $1 billion of Canadian public money is spent each year on basic medical research. Yet Canadians have no ownership of the products that result.”

Moreover, Big Pharma itself doesn’t really want to be in the business of producing vaccines. A report published by the CDC has noted the reluctance of such firms to invest in vaccine R&D, since this line of production is much less profitable than drugs for chronic illness.

Anti-vaxx sentiment may not be entirely caused by Big Pharma’s litany of malfeasance, but it would certainly lose a major part of its power in a world where the pharmaceutical industry had been transformed into a public good.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that Big Pharma’s corrosive effects on public trust pose a bigger threat in the long run than anti-vaxxers. Winning over vaccine skeptics to a public system may very well prove easier than convincing them to put their faith in companies with such a venal track record.

There is no better time than the present to nationalize pharmaceutical production, or at least to establish well-funded public labs in the Connaught tradition. This would certainly be the most effective way to restore public confidence that has been eroded by decades of unscrupulous profiteering. The Connaught system worked because people believed in it — and a similar system could work again.