“No one should be poor because they are sick, or sick because they are poor” is what our partner at Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, Merith Basey, told us last year before the pandemic began. She saw it coming and we started planning. The pandemic was declared, and two days later we had the plan for Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 on paper.
Today is the one year anniversary of the declaration of the pandemic. While many in wealthy nations are getting their vaccination shots – in record time – the disparity in the roll-out is shocking. In 130 countries around the world, not one dose has been administered to anyone in those nations. The people paid for the research and shouldered the risk in developing these medications – not just through “Operation Warp Speed” but decades of publicly funded science through taxpayer supported institutions like the National Institutes of Health (in the United States) and others in places like Canada, Europe, Korea, Austrialia, and New Zealand. We paid for the research and have now allowed that work to be monopolized by private corporations and sold back to us.
No one is safe, until everyone is safe. Profiteering off a pandemic is unacceptable. Permitting monopoly patents on publicly funded research only prolongs the pandemic.
The scarcity that drives profit and prioritizing the nations who can pay the most leaves our friends and family around the world in danger. It exacerbates inequality between rich nations who can begin to move forward and nations with less who will continue to suffer. But even the vaccinated are threatened by these policies too as delays allow variants to spread and thrive.
So what have we done?
When the WHO declared a global health emergency in January of 2020, we had the benefit of already being in conversation with Merith Basey, a Center for Artistic Activism training alumni, and with her we developed a new program to address the disparities we saw coming. Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 took elements we’d developed in years past – online instruction, action driven teaching, cultivating innovative methods, and more – as well as Universities Allied for Essential Medicines’ expertise in access to medicines and mentoring youth leadership.
We got started in March of last year holding information sessions that foretold the challenges ahead, mapping out alternate paths, and explaining how people could be involved, how they could contribute and learn, and how to do it from lockdowns and quarantines around the world. We set up a secure online forum, found spanish translation, and reached out to partners from places like ACT-UP, Health GAP, and Public Citizen.
Each “season” we ran includes hundreds of participants from dozens of countries around the world. Participants, exhausted by countless typical online meetings, describe Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 meetings as the highlight of their week. They talk about learning new things from the access to medicines world, or discovering new ways to push forward their campaigns from the artistic activism side. Despite the depressing reality of the issue we’re working on, friends are made and a lot of fun is had; dance lessons, costumes, black-tie award ceremonies.
And over time other organizations have joined us. Along with UNAIDS, OxFam, and Global Justice Now we launched The People’s Vaccine coalition.
Yesterday Senator Bernie Sanders created a video announcing his support of our work and calling on the Biden Administration to clear the obstacles that patents and profits put before public health.
Today, March 11, there are actions in cities all over the world, calling to “Free the Vaccine”.
Pfizer Headquarters New York
Moderna in Boston
What you can do
- Call Ask the Biden Administration to join C-TAP – the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool. This would enable the sharing of data and research with the rest of the world. Call the White House +1 202 456 1414
- Call your leaders to support a COVID TRIPS Waiver at the WTO, which would waive restrictions on “trade-related intellectual property rights” thus allowing W.T.O. member countries to produce generic versions of any coronavirus vaccines and Covid-19 treatments.
- Ask any research Universities you may be affiliated with to sign the Open COVID Pledge.
- Talk to your friends and family about the value of public funding for medicines!