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COVID, cartels and collusion


Owain Williams


Seminar Room 1.04, Coombs Extension Building (8), Fellows Road, ANU


Tuesday, 28 June, 2022 - 12:30 to 13:30

‘If it smells like a cartel, looks like a cartel, and acts like a cartel, then it probably is a cartel’

At first glance, the ongoing inequities in global access to effective vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 can simply be attributed to the raw power of pharmaceutical corporations and the structure of global pharmaceutical markets that have been long rigged to benefit dominant transnational firms.

These dominant firms have exercised concentrated market power across markets which have been structured in such a way as to support a highly stable and entrenched oligopoly over time. The firms dominate over a series of product and national markets and a world-wide industrial sector involving high levels of profit and relatively low levels of competition and competitive entry. Most of key players just jostle for relative ranking in the top 10 or 20, and only rarely have to confront new rivals.

And while the rapid rise of Moderna to the global elite firms would seem to tell a different story with its breakthrough mRNA vaccine for COVID, the larger pandemic picture appears on initial inspection to present a familiar scene of the dominant corporations with large amounts of capital and scientific, technological and regulatory expertise using their market power to secure yet more concentrated power and super-profits.

However, there are numerous elephants in the room when one considers this first cut analysis. Greater agency and widespread political-economic collusion is involved in rigging pharmaceutical markets. Here we argue that COVID and vaccine access is simply just another particularly egregious manifestation of a political and economic global cartel that has come to define pharmaceutical markets and access to medicines, and indeed other key sectors and markets. Let us simply call it what it is – a cartel, albeit comprised of highly collusive firms and states.

This presentation builds on recent work by the author on oligopoly, sectoral concentration and the market power and market strategies of dominant firms. We look to pharmaceutical cartels and COVID to being the strands of non-market (political and regulatory) and market (corporate and sector) environments together. Integrated strategy is not just something developed by dominant transnational, but is a multi-nodal exercise in rigging and structuring the global political economy by means of the hybridised interests and collusive actions of transnational capital, institutions and states. In this case it concerns pharmaceuticals and the structural conditions of vaccine access, but the core dynamics apply across sectors, markets and policy spaces.

About the speaker

Owain Williams is an Associate Professor in Global Political Economy and Health at the University of Leeds. He has worked across Global Public Health and International Relations and Political Economy. He has developed a range of work on the global political economy of health and food and their governance, and more recently on the political economy of the COVID pandemic, and on the politics and political economy of access to medicines. His current focus in on the COVID pandemic and also expanding work on market power and oligopoly. He has published on access to medicines and global health governance, and new actors in health. His work includes some 60 papers, and edited and co-authored books. He is Program Director of the Masters in Global Political Economy at the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds.

COVID protocols

  • Please do not attend this event if you feel unwell, are awaiting the results of a test or are required to self-isolate/quarantine. The ANU’s COVID Safety advice can be accessed here.
  • The ANU will continue to require that masks be worn indoors for the foreseeable future, except when eating or drinking.
  • Attendees are encouraged to use hand sanitiser and the Check in CBR app at the entrance to the building.
  • Please maintain good social hygiene by staying 1.5m apart from others and coughing/sneezing into elbows.

This seminar presentation will be in-person only.

Image credit: Image of vaccine vials, syringes and pharmaceutical company logos by Marco Verch Professional Photographer on flickr, (CC BY 2.0)





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