STEPHEN GLOVER: Boris Johnson right to say capitalism won vaccine war

STEPHEN GLOVER: Boris Johnson right to say capitalism won vaccine war

STEPHEN GLOVER: Yes, his ‘greed’ remark was clumsy. But Boris Johnson was right to say capitalism won the vaccine war

You can take Boris Johnson out of his newspaper column and plonk him in No 10, but you can’t take the controversialist newspaper columnist out of Boris Johnson.

The man who offended many people a few years ago by writing in the Daily Telegraph that Muslim women in burkas ‘look like letterboxes’ has done it again.

During a Zoom meeting with backbench Tory MPs on Tuesday, the Prime Minister reportedly declared: ‘The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends.’

Boris the crowd-pleaser quickly realised he had gone too far. He said he regretted the word ‘greed’, and urged colleagues to forget he had used it. But of course what he had said was leaked to the Press.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a news conference at 10 Downing Street, on the day of reflection to mark the anniversary of Britain’s first Covid lockdown, March 23, 2021

The idea that Greed is Good has understandably sent his political opponents, and even a few members of his own party, into a fury. Even though he withdrew the statement, he had thought and uttered it — and that, to some, is deeply shocking.

Greed, after all, is a cardinal sin, according to Christian teaching. For centuries, parents and teachers have instructed children to beware of it. Even the young Boris may have been told by his father Stanley not to snatch the last eclair.

So some people will say his embrace of greed as a virtue, however fleeting, illuminates his warped morality, or even the complete absence of decent moral values.

More from Stephen Glover for the Daily Mail…

I don’t agree. Of course he used the wrong word. I doubt, though, that many would have got hot under the collar — or even have noticed — if he had said a combination of capitalism, ambition and enterprise led to stunning vaccine success.

Some would demur, I grant you. There are politicians who mistakenly believe that the State is the most efficient player in ensuring that effective vaccines reach as many people as possible as soon as possible. Not a few of them are sitting in Brussels, surveying the mess they have created.

Incidentally, I won’t be surprised if some Eurocrats try to make political capital out of Boris’s endorsement of greed. And yet isn’t the EU itself displaying greed by threatening to bag vaccines already ordered and paid for by the UK?

The truth is that without the drive and determination of several pharmaceutical companies, the NHS wouldn’t have any vaccines to distribute. Needless to say, in stating this I don’t dispute the vital part the health service has played in this country’s triumphant vaccine roll-out.

What drove these firms? Altruism played a part, to be sure. They wanted to save the world from a catastrophe, or at any rate to limit its effects.

This was probably particularly true of brilliant non-commercial scientists, such as those at Oxford University, who have helped develop successful vaccines. And of the brave people who became guinea pigs to test them.

But altruism by itself wasn’t enough — not by a long chalk. With the noble exception of AstraZeneca — which has agreed to sell its Oxford vaccine at cost price — pharmaceutical companies aim to make handsome profits out of their vaccines, which they will sell much more expensively.

Boris Johnson after receiving the first dose of AstraZeneca vaccine administered by nurse and Clinical Pod Lead, Lily Harrington at St.Thomas’ Hospital on March 19, 2021 in London

One can safely assume that even AstraZeneca, though worthily eschewing profits in this instance, hopes for some reward. It has relatively little experience as a manufacturer of vaccines, and probably saw an opportunity to enhance its international reputation.

Nor do I suppose it escaped the notice of its executives that a rival in the race to produce a vaccine was the U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which had tried and failed to take over the Anglo-Swedish multi-national in 2014.

Ironically, of course, the EU has missed no opportunity to rubbish AstraZeneca unfairly, doubting the efficacy of its jab, and calling into question the firm’s good faith. No good deed goes unpunished in this life.

It’s admittedly unusual to find a ‘Big Pharma’ company cast in the role of victim. They are more typically propelled by a desire to make enormous profits out of the drugs they develop. They are sometimes rightly accused of over-charging. But the best of them do produce life-saving drugs.

GlaxoSmithKline, the other British pharmaceutical giant, has so far failed to come up with an effective vaccine. Nonetheless, with a smaller American partner it has produced a therapy that is claimed to reduce dramatically hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19. If true, this is a wonderful achievement.

Boris Johnson receives the first dose of AstraZeneca vaccine at St.Thomas’ Hospital, London

Boris gives a thumbs up after rolling up his sleeve to have the AstraZeneca vaccine

None of this would happen if drug companies were not driven and intensively competitive. Before the 2019 election, Jeremy Corbyn threatened to bring them under state control. Does anyone sensible seriously believe this would lead to more and better medicines?

That is what Boris was getting at. Capitalism has been effective in producing new vaccines in record time. Something a bit like greed — the burning desire to make loads of money — is doubtless one part of the mix. It has to be so.

But it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. For while the pharmaceutical companies are ruthless and single-minded — as well as indispensable — they have also to some degree been guided and directed by the Government on our behalf.

As the Prime Minister is well aware, the Government has been prepared to spend large sums of money to improve facilities for manufacturing vaccines in the UK. The EU, by contrast, has largely failed in this endeavour.

Members of the public receive a dose of the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine at Lichfield cathedral, a temporary vaccination centre, in Lichfield, central England on March 18, 2021

More than £240 million was invested in 2020, and new sums continue to be put in, with a further £48 million being announced in the past week. The Government has successfully harnessed the energy of capitalism, and ensured that it is employed to the benefit of the public.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca jab was chiefly funded by the university and the pharmaceutical firm. But the research behind the jab also received £65.5 million from the Government.

Novavax, a relatively small American biotech company, was identified last year by the brilliant Kate Bingham — then head of the Vaccine Taskforce, as well as a biochemist and successful venture capitalist — as worth backing.

The very promising, though still unapproved, Novavax jab will be produced by Fujifilm at its Billingham facility on Teesside after significant financial support by the Government.

In other words, what we have seen is a combination of pretty voracious capitalism — it doesn’t get much more voracious than Big Pharma — and informed Government intervention in the shape of Bingham and her taskforce.

Whether this recipe will work in other areas after the pandemic has receded is far from certain. For the point is that whereas most senior civil servants know little about business, and are therefore ill-equipped to spot commercial winners, Kate Bingham is herself a highly successful capitalist.

Whenever Boris Johnson lets slip something outrageous, it’s a fair bet that he doesn’t believe it, or at any rate only half believes it. A few years ago, he famously said ‘F*** business’, a sentiment apparently at variance with his latest pronouncement about capitalism and greed.

What Boris really means, I think, is that capitalists, not politicians, produce wealth. But it remains the role of government to smooth the edges, to curb the unrestrained instincts of capitalism through regulation and taxation, and to try to steer it towards the common good.

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