Labor creates all value, including vaccine value
Workers process boxes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a distribution center in Olive Branch, Miss., Dec. 20, 2020. | Paul Sancya / AP

As I watched the rollout of the first COVID-19 vaccines on television recently, I thought of that old line, “Labor creates all value.”

Above all, it is labor power—mental labor and muscle labor—that is producing safe, effective vaccines in quantities sufficient to vaccinate the 340 million people of the United States. People mistakenly credit Karl Marx with discovering that labor is the source of value in a commodity. In fact, this revolutionary insight was the work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the main economic theoreticians of free market capitalism.

Marx discovered “surplus value,” that the owners of the means of production do not pay their workers for all the hours they work. The hours they toil for nothing Marx called surplus value, deducted from which are the profits that capitalists pocket.

So we don’t know, and maybe never will know, how much “surplus value” Big Pharma will squeeze from all those workers fighting against COVID-19. The scientists and their labor power were indispensable, but so was that of the factory workers at the pharmaceutical plants owned by Pfizer, Moderna, and the other pharma corporations whose vaccines are still to come. Their labor power is essential to produce billions of doses to inoculate the population of the world.

I think first of the scientists toiling 16-hour days in laboratories to isolate COVID-19, to find the antigens that will trigger an immune response in the cells of human beings. It must be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Once found, the antigen must be lab and field tested to see if it works, if it is safe. Once the testing is over, the vaccine must be cultured in all those vats and mass produced as if they were churning out ten million pounds of pure butter.

I Googled, looking for information describing in detail, step-by-step, how scientists isolate the virus, find the right antigen, field test it. The article I read told me that the “basic” research in developing any vaccine is done in federally funded labs like the National Institutes of Health, or in federally funded university labs. But the mass production of the vaccine is done in private, for-profit pharmaceutical plants. Public investment, private profits.

So there is a strongly “socialized” character to the production of all medicines and especially vaccines. And the scientists and their co-workers developed this vaccine in less than a year! It is a stunning victory. It can take years to find a vaccine and, of course, for many diseases we have been searching for decades and still have not found a “magic bullet.”

As of this writing, more than 320,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States and over 18 million have tested positive. Even with the vaccine, we must still follow the guidelines laid down by scientists: wear masks, practice social distancing, wash our hands, avoid large gatherings, stay at home.

A worker inspects vials of vaccine for COVID-19 produced by SinoVac at its factory in Beijing on Sept. 24, 2020. | Ng Han Guan / AP

There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we are still in the tunnel, as Dr. Anthony Fauci has said. And part of the struggle is fighting to overcome the anti-science prejudice. The ultra-right cunningly whips up movements like the “anti-vaxx” cultists who spread lies and misinformation against vaccinations. Trump and associates’ outrageous lie that doctors and nurses are deliberately inflating the COVID-19 infection rates to enrich themselves is typical of this neo-fascist propaganda.

The suspicions in the African-American community have a different, though related origin. Black people have been used as guinea-pigs in pseudo research before, like those African-American prison inmates in Alabama used to test vaccines against venereal disease, for example. So African-American doctors and nurses are now stepping forward to be the first inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine. It is especially important, because African Americans, Latinx, and Native American Indians have been the hardest hit by this pandemic.

Trump will always be remembered as the president who denied the virus, falsely branded it the “China virus,” and refused to federalize mass production of test kits, masks, and other emergency supplies. He insisted on staging mass campaign rallies with virtually none of his fans wearing masks. He jeered at Joe Biden for wearing a mask during a presidential debate. He unleashed a war against science and scientists including, Dr. Fauci.

Trump was the ultimate superspreader. His slogan was “Make America Great Again,” but he turned the U.S. into the COVID-19 epicenter of the world. He presided over the worst economic collapse of any nation in the world with his bungled handling of COVID-19, causing millions to lose their jobs, homes, health care, and their lives. He deserves to be tried, convicted, and put in prison on charges of premeditated murder.

But despite it all, we can still celebrate this holiday season and give thanks to all the frontline workers who gave so generously in this global pandemic, the scientists who put their training to work for the benefit of humanity, and the pharma factory workers filling the vials now being shipped out to help the world.

The labor power of all of them together created the ultimate value—saving human lives.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler has written over 10,000 news reports, exposés, op-eds, and commentaries in his half-century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World, and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper.  His book News for the 99% is a selection of his writings over the last 50 years representing a history of the nation and the world from a working-class point of view. After residing in Baltimore for many years, Tim now lives in Sequim, Wash.