Inside the Campaign to Force Big Pharma to Make COVID Vaccines Available to Everyone

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.
June 18, 2021, 10:40am
Demonstrators hold a rally to "Free the Vaccine," calling on the US to commit to a global coronavirus vaccination plan that includes sharing vaccine formulas with the world to help ensure that every nation has access to a vaccine, on the National Mall in
Demonstrators hold a rally to "Free the Vaccine," calling on the US to commit to a global coronavirus vaccination plan that includes sharing vaccine formulas with the world to help ensure that every nation has access to a vaccine, on the National Mall in Washington, DC, May, 2021. Photo: SAUL LOEB / AFP

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.”

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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.”

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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.

Campaigners for The Peoples Vaccine Alliance pose as G7 leaders, fighting over a COVID-19 vaccine on the 11th of June 2021 near Falmouth, Cornwall, United Kingdom. Photo: Andrew Aitchison/In Pictures via Getty Images

Campaigners for The Peoples Vaccine Alliance pose as G7 leaders, fighting over a COVID-19 vaccine on the 11th of June 2021 near Falmouth, Cornwall, United Kingdom. Photo: Andrew Aitchison/In Pictures via Getty Images

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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The pharmaceutical industry doesn’t see it that way and has in the past gone to extraordinary lengths to protect the secrets behind its profitable medicines. In 1998, with HIV/AIDS ravaging the African continent, 39 pharmaceutical companies sued Nelson Mandela for trying to make the relevant medicines more affordable. The move was a PR disaster, and the companies dropped the suit in 2001.

Pfizer did not respond directly to questions sent to the company for this article. Instead, a spokesperson directed VICE World News to a letter published on LinkedIn after the announcement of US support for the TRIPS waiver, in which Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla argues that the waiver will “disrupt the flow of raw materials” needed to make the vaccine, and “disincentivize anyone else from taking a big risk”.

Pharmaceutical companies argue that the investments they make in research, development and staffing mean that they are entitled to their profits – this is what Bourla is getting at when he talks about “disincentives”. The mRNA technology underpinning the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is not new, but their manufacture is skilled work. “When we created our vaccine there was no manufacturing production of any mRNA vaccine or medicine anywhere in the world,” Bourla writes.

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Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine brought in $3.5 billion in revenues for the US company in the first three months of this year. It expects to bring in $26 billion in revenue in 2021. Like Pfizer, Moderna charges more than $30 per person to wealthier nations for its two-dose jab and expects up to $20 billion in sales this year.

Campaigners like Dearden point out that vaccine makers have all benefited from large amounts of public and charitable funding, whether that is AstraZeneca’s partnership with Oxford university, Pfizer’s backing from the US government’s Operation Warp Speed scheme or the billions in American taxpayer money that has gone into the Moderna jab. This means that while private companies claim record profits, the taxpayer essentially pays for the vaccines twice: first in funding for research, development, trials and manufacturing, and then in government procurement of the doses. 

“With the system as it is, if you just removed the IP and you shared this knowledge – without any kind of socialist revolution – you are going to massively increase the amount of vaccines,” says Dearden.

When campaigners talk about the dangers inherent in keeping a tight lid on vaccine technology, they often talk about India, where the emergence of a new variant has contributed to the deaths of over 350,000 people.

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“Access to vaccines is basically non-existent in rural India,” says Priyam Cherian, a Delhi-based lawyer who works with the People’s Health Movement (PHM), a global organisation that has a presence in around 70 countries and which has been a key part of the campaign for a people’s vaccine. “Everyone is well aware of what is happening. All of us are trying to find a bed or an ambulance. People are seeing how policies affect them.”

“People are struggling to just keep their family in place. It has hit all of us. People haven’t had time to process it; they haven’t had the space to get angry because they are still scrambling around,” says Cherian’s colleague, Prasanna Saligram, a public health professional who has worked for PHM for 17 years. “You just have to look at the UK, where everything is opening up, and Israel, where the population was vaccinated but the Palestinians weren’t. That epitomises the inequity of the situation.”

Cherian points out the dark absurdity of living in a country in which more vaccines are produced than anywhere else, but where hardly anyone is vaccinated. Despite the output, said to be “roughly two million vaccine doses each day”, there are only two companies making vaccines in India. 

“The vaccine manufacturing capacity is not being utilised to its fullest extent in India. This is an emergency. There should be multiple companies manufacturing,” says Cherian. She added that the recent approval of the Sputnik V vaccine should “eventually” change this, because Indian companies have been given licences to manufacture the Russian jab. 

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This frustration around manufacturing is felt keenly by John Fulton, a spokesman for Biolyse, a Canadian drugs manufacturer that has a “history of taking on big pharmaceutical companies”. Fulton says his company has a 30,000 square foot facility that could make at least 20 million doses a year if it was allowed to. Biolyse has just signed a deal with the Bolivian government to manufacture vaccines for the Latin American nation.

The problem elsewhere, Fulton says, is that the Canadian government has shut Biolyse out of the process, preferring to hand out contracts to its friends, many of whom have no experience in the relevant fields. It’s a situation Fulton describes as “crony capitalism”. Biolyse is not currently set up to deal with mRNA technology, but with investment from the Canadian government – the kind that has been provided to big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer – they would be. 

“By a stroke of luck, all this equipment is here,” says Fulton. “If we had funding we could be up and running in six months. If the Canadian government had come through we would be producing already. When you’re sitting here watching all these people die across the Global South and you could be doing something – it’s awful.” 

Campaigners levelled a similar response at global leaders following the G7 summit. “Boris Johnson went into the G7 promising to ‘vaccinate the world’. He came out with only 600 million truly new doses – the same amount that could be produced by a single factory in Bangladesh if we just waived patents,” Dearden says. 

“But we always knew the change needed wouldn’t come from leaders like Johnson. The important thing is that he’s now in a small minority – the scale of the problem means only big, structural change will undermine vaccine apartheid. And most people agree with us.”

CORRECTION 21/06/2021: This article originally said Biolyse has a 1,700 square foot manufacturing facility. The facility is 30,000 square foot. We regret the error.