The People’s Vaccine Campaign

The People’s Vaccine campaign wants pharmaceutical companies to drop their patents to help distribute jabs to the billions of people across the world who remain unvaccinated.

On the afternoon of the 5th of May, a hundred or so activists gathered for a rally in Washington, D.C. While some spoke from a stage, others dressed in Care Bear costumes held a banner – also illustrated with Care Bears – that read: “Remind Joe Biden. Sharing is caring. Share the vaccine recipe and save lives! Free the vaccine for Covid-19.”

Halfway through the rally, Maanasa Gurram, a college student and project manager for the group Free the Vaccine, noticed something. “In the midst of one of the speeches someone came over to us and said, ‘I think Biden is supporting the waiver’”, she tells VICE World News. “We couldn’t believe it. The whole atmosphere changed to one of jubilation.”

The waiver Gurram is referring to is to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, better known as TRIPS, which was signed by all member nations of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1994 and which continues to play a key part in how Covid-19 vaccines are manufactured and who gets them. The agreement protects the intellectual property rights of the pharmaceutical companies making the doses, meaning they do not have to share their recipes. 

This is partly why just over 2 percent of people in Africa have been vaccinated. It has also contributed to a situation in which India, where more vaccines are manufactured than anywhere else in the world, has struggled to protect its population, leading to the catastrophic surge in the new variant of the virus.

“As long as the virus spreads, it can mutate and move. Ending the pandemic is not a question of charity. It is a question of survival,” says Varsha Gandikota-Nellutla, a feminist economic justice advocate and campaigner with Progressive International, which will host a virtual summit to “speed up the production, distribution, and delivery of COVID vaccines to the world” on 18th to the 21st June. “The longer we wait, the more we are at risk: billions of lives, north and south, vaccinated and unvaccinated.”

Biden’s support for the TRIPS waiver, which could help pave the way for the mass production of free or easily affordable doses for poorer nations, surprised many campaigners, who had got used to both Republican and Democrat presidents fiercely guarding the intellectual property rights of big corporations. It also put the US at odds with its longstanding allies in the G7, particularly the UK, Canada and Germany.  

Before the G7 summit in Cornwall, the US announced that it would buy 500 million doses of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine to distribute to nearly 100 countries around the world. That was followed on the weekend by a promise from G7 leaders of “one billion COVID vaccines for poorer nations”. But as Bloomberg reported, the headline figures conceal a dispiriting reality: G7 countries have so far only promised 613 million “truly new doses” of the vaccine, with the one billion figure only reached by including pledges made starting back in February. 

Moreover, donations alone will not vaccinate the world. Discussions of the waiver at the summit appear to have been limited. The Indian government is lobbying G7 leaders to back the waiver, but a source familiar with that lobbying said that so far only the United States, France and elements within Germany’s leadership – but most definitely not Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said after the US announcement that the “protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and it must remain so in the future”  – were onboard. As COVID-19 continues to kill people the world over, and as the threat of new variants jumping continents looms, demands to provide equitable access to vaccines are becoming ever more urgent.

For as long as there has been a COVID-19 vaccine, there has been a campaign for a “people’s vaccine”.

“A people’s vaccine is one that isn’t controlled by big pharmaceutical companies and is therefore one that can be got out as soon as possible, free of charge,” says Nick Dearden, director of the UK-based campaign group Global Justice Now, which is part of that group of over 50 organisations across the world – including Free the Vaccine, Oxfam and Amnesty – campaigning for a people’s vaccine. 

The waiving of the TRIPS agreement is key to this. If companies like Pfizer are compelled to share the recipes to their vaccines, those vaccines can be manufactured all over the world and distributed to the billions of people who remain unvaccinated, campaigners say.

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