What is Free the Vaccine?

Free the Vaccine for COVID-19, a member of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, works to ensure that publicly-funded diagnostic tools, treatments, and effective vaccines for COVID-19 will be sustainably priced, available to all, and free at the point of delivery.

To achieve this goal, we’ve focused mainly on changing a key part of the drug research and development process: the way that universities license their research findings to drug companies.

Why universities?

Often university scientists receive public funding to conduct foundational biomedical research. The university then licenses those research findings to other companies that take the drug or diagnostic tool to market. It’s common for universities to grant a developer an exclusive license on the research – effectively giving that corporation a monopoly on the product. But monopolies on medicine cost lives. They enable drug companies to set arbitrary, exorbitant prices that prevent people from being able to get the care they need.

To help end the pandemic, we’re asking universities to adopt the Open COVID Pledge and promise to share COVID-related research with open licenses that will allow anyone to use the knowledge or the technology for free to ease the pandemic. This means that when we find successful treatments and vaccines, more companies will be able to produce them. And more people will be able to afford life-saving care.

What’s unique about Free the Vaccine’s approach?

We blend social justice with creativity to develop innovative advocacy tools that anyone can use.

We won’t win social justice through conventional methods in the current socio-political landscape, so we’re finding ways that work through our “Advocacy Innovation Labs.” While the virologists are working in their labs developing vaccines, we’re working in ours to develop innovative advocacy that brings together the best of social justice and creativity.

The pilot Advocacy Innovation Lab started April 8th 2020 with more than 300 volunteers. Project leaders organized strangers from strikingly diverse backgrounds in “Salk Squads” (named after Jonas Salk who gave the vaccine for polio to the world). Participants collaborate creatively and quickly. We carry out weekly missions that hone our artistic activism skills and move key targets in the direction of the campaign’s primary goal: guaranteeing equitable access to COVID-19 medicines.

The squads experiment with narratives, graphics, music, performance and ways to activate social media. We’ve used songs, videos, plants, giant syringes, trading cards, audio cards, and many other unexpected means. We take time to reflect on why some strategies and tactics work, and why others don’t. We experiment, revise, and repeat.

These aren’t just fun and exciting interventions – they are specifically designed, based on years of research into psychology and creative activism, to open doors at the institutions that hold the levers of power in the drug development system, and to increase the level of public and press attention on the issue in ways that move those levers of power. 


Why Free the Vaccine?

This is a matter of social justice.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on what the access to medicines movement has known for decades: the dominant model we use to develop new medicines systematically excludes certain people and populations. The people who will suffer most from high drug prices are those who are already suffering most in this crisis: BIPOC, poor people, and those in low and middle-income countries. In order to end this pandemic, we must ensure that COVID tests, treatments, and vaccines are accessible and affordable for everyone. Given the current drug development systems in place, that will not happen without heightened, sustained advocacy.

So many people have lost their lives to COVID-19.The very real danger is that, even when there is a safe and effective vaccine, hundreds of thousands more will die. Without equitable access for everyone across the globe, a vaccine can’t fully do its job.


Who is Free the Vaccine?

We are a collective of volunteers – artists and medical students, activists and non-activists, young and old – from 29 countries around the world. The project is organized by two non-profit organizations: Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) and the Center for Artistic Activism (C4AA).


Who made this exhibit?

The exhibit development team included Merith Basey, Rebecca Bray, Julia Briggs, Jeff Crouse, Beth Dunlap, Stacy Early, Laura Holzman, Steve Lambert, Dannie Snyder, and Simbie Yau with additional contributions from other Free the Vaccine participants and advisors.


Creativity vs. COVID: Ending the Pandemic for Good is funded in part by Indiana University and the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute, Open Society Foundations, and many generous supporters like you. Please donate to help the campaign continue.