Even as COVID-19 vaccines roll out in the United States, there is no end in sight to the pandemic for the vast majority of people in the world.
Many in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East won’t get access to COVID vaccines until 2024. This is vaccine apartheid.
India, right now, is the front line of this global public health emergency. India has the highest death toll of any country and more than half of the world’s cases, as many as 400,000 new infections a day.
Yet India is also the world’s largest producer of vaccines - including millions of the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine doses sent to the United States and Europe. While thousands in India die daily, only 3.3 percent of its population has been vaccinated.
That’s why Justice is Global, a project of People’s Action, and our Health Care for All team have joined allies to demand the Biden administration and World Trade Organization stop protecting pharmaceutical monopolies and #FreeTheVaccine. Because no one will be safe from COVID-19 and future pandemics until all of us are safe.
“In my lifetime, I have never seen this type of devastation or tragedy,” said Dr. Harjit Singh Bhatti. Dr. Bhatti was one of the guests from India who joined a livestream broadcast on May 8 organized by Justice is Global and Equality Labs to draw attention to the ongoing COVID crisis.
Dr. Bhatti joined us live from the hospital in New Delhi where he has attended to patients nonstop since the second wave of COVID-19 hit.
“We have literally seen people dying in front of our eyes, and that was the most traumatic situation that ever came to any health care professional,” said Dr. Bhatti. “So many people died, we have seen the cremation grounds and crematoria full.”
Dr. Bhatti blames this death toll and the vaccine shortage squarely on global pharmaceutical monopolies and the political allies who protect them. India has more than enough capacity to produce the vaccines developing countries need, he said, but powerful monopolies stand in the way.
“Instead of providing free vaccines, made at a publicly-funded manufacturer, there is a big business going on behind this vaccine,” Dr. Bhatti said.
At People’s Action, we know the Biden administration could end this. They can save lives by easing access to vaccines. They have great influence over both the pharmaceutical monopolies and trade organizations that control access to these livesaving drugs.
The U.S. has both the opportunity and resources to help the world put an end to this pandemic - which is in our best interest - but it has yet to take decisive action.
That is why People’s Action is organizing and mobilizing our members to inspire President Biden to do everything in his power to ensure global access to vaccines, so the world can begin the long-awaited road to recovery from COVID-19.
What Are We Doing?
Over the last six months, Justice is Global and People’s Action helped run a campaign for the U.S. government to support the petition led by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property of COVID-19 technologies. This provision, known as a TRIPS Waiver, would enable qualified vaccine manufacturers worldwide, like those in India, to produce low-cost COVID-19 vaccines for everyone.
To build support and momentum for this initiative, we hosted livestream events with over 70,000 attendees, organized grassroots mobilizations that have engaged hundreds of members. Leaders from our network threw down in actions held in Atlanta, Boston, Durham, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, Wilmington, and Washington D.C.. We organized protests at the corporate headquarters of Pfizer and Moderna which was widely covered in the press. We also reached out to members of Congress to sign a congressional letter to President Biden that garnered support from over half the Democratic caucus.
This combination of these efforts forced the U.S. government, on May 5, to change its position on the TRIPS Waiver and support freeing COVID-19 technology patents.
We Won, Now What?
Overcoming U.S. opposition to patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines is a tremendous victory, one the World Health Organization’s director general, Tedros Ghebreyesus, rightly calls “monumental.” We worked hard, and we should celebrate this win. Yet we know this is only the first step towards ending the pandemic.
Because even if the U.S. wants to ease patent restrictions, the pharmaceutical industry is working behind the scenes at the World Trade Organization to protect their monopolies, and prevent and hinder access to what is needed to manufacture vaccines around the world. Pharmaceutical industry lobbyists are already targeting the U.S. lawmakers who signed on to support the TRIPS Waiver to intimidate them from future action.
So this is no time to slow down: we must build momentum. We will keep up the pressure to pass the TRIPS Waiver and other measures to ramp up manufacturing and ensure free vaccines across the globe, which is widely popular.
Our solution? More grassroots pressure. As we have seen in recent years with fearless activism against police violence, climate change, and HIV/AIDS, which led to the last successful TRIPS Waiver for greater global access to treatments, grassroots movements can dramatically shift political possibilities.
People’s Action is also challenging a new rule proposed by The National Institute for Standards in Technology (NIST) under the Department of Commerce to end the U.S. government’s power to intervene on pharmaceutical monopolies domestically.
This change, introduced by the Trump administration in its waning days as a major gift to pharmaceutical corporations, has largely flown under the radar until now, but it could affect production and access to COVID-19 vaccines and a long list of other lifesaving medicines.
So People’s Action sounded an alarm and generated thousands of comments from our members and supporters to contribute to over 80,000 comments to oppose the federal government’s proposal to end its own ability to stop corporate monopolies. Prior to our efforts, there were less than 20 comments posted on the federal register.
The Biden administration has yet to announce its position on this proposed rule, so we will continue to call on the Biden administration to stop doing Trump’s dirty work, and retain the government’s power to act in the interest of people to end monopolies.
Take Action Today
As always, People’s Action will invite our members and supporters to join us to take action with us to #FreeTheVaccine, and create a path towards ending the pandemic worldwide. You and your friends can send a postcard to President Biden to demand that he stand up to Big Pharma and #FreetheVaccine: just fill out this form, share it on social media, and invite everyone you know who wants to end the pandemic to join in. We’ll take care of the printing and shipping!
You can also help us ramp up grassroots mobilizations in the next couple of months. We must continue to grow our power to protect this critical milestone so that the administration can fully support global cooperation. That means we must continue to challenge the pharmaceutical industry’s intimidation tactics.
So even as we celebrate, we must remember the urgency of the thousands still affected daily by COVID-19 in India and around the world. That’s why we must act now to ensure full and free access to vaccines.
“If they won’t get access to the vaccine,” Dr. Bhatta said of his patients, “it will be a whole mass tragedy - to the whole of the underprivileged section.”
Ben Levenson is deputy director of Justice is Global, a project of People's Action to take on the greatest global threats of our generation.
Connie Huynh is Health Care for All campaign director for People's Action and national chairperson of AF3RM, a transnational feminist organization.