On Wednesday, activists took to the streets to call on the United States and Germany to suspend patent rules for the Covid-19 vaccine, in order to expand global access to vaccines. A day ahead of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the White House, more than 100 protesters marched from the United Nations’ Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza and passed the German Consulate before making their way to the headquarters of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in Midtown Manhattan.
They had a clear message for the rich and powerful: Public health, and not pharmaceutical industry greed, should shape the global response to the pandemic.
The protest was led by People’s Action, a national grassroots coalition, and cosponsored by a number of advocacy groups including Health Gap, the Center for Popular Democracy, Metro NY Health Care for All, and Religions for Peace. Protesters traveled to New York City from New Jersey, Wisconsin, Maryland, Alabama, Washington, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. to make their voices heard.
As rich nations race to vaccinate their populations, a severe lack of access to vaccines for poor countries has led to the mutation of Covid-19 into the increasingly dominant Delta variant. While 80% of the world’s vaccine supply has gone to upper income countries, only 1% of people in low-income countries have received their first vaccine shots.
“I’m from Pakistan. My aunt died from Covid-19,” says Manzoor Cheema, a grassroots organizer with Muslims for Social Justice in North Carolina, who traveled to New York for the protest. “People are dying and these people are talking about profit — that’s criminal. They have blood on their hands.”
Activists say the international disparity in vaccines stems from an unjust global system in which pharmaceutical industry profits are protected at all costs. In December 2020, India and South Africa called on the World Trade Organization (WTO) to suspend patent rules for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments under the body’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. Advocates of the proposal argue that these patent rules have obstructed the mass production of cheaper, generic versions of vaccines by prioritizing the protection of the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies.
The WTO can suspend patent restrictions on the vaccine by reaching a consensus with member nations, but Germany has stood firm in its opposition to the waiver. Germany has argued that the suspension of the patent would hinder future innovation and that the lack of availability to the vaccine in poor countries is a matter of production capacity, not patents.
But activists do not buy these arguments. “[Pharmeceutical companies] want to protect their monopoly because it’s a cash cow,” says Reginald Thomas Brown an organizer with VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization that works with people affected by HIV/AIDS, mass incarceration and homelessness. “This vaccine is possible because of federal funds, taxpayer funds.”
Brown, who has been HIV positive since 1986, knows first-hand how important access to generic medications is: He says one of the HIV medications he takes costs over far more in the United States than in India, thanks to India’s generic drugs industry. Brown was among the first people in the United States to receive the Covid-19 vaccine in September 2020 as part of a 26-month study. “I put my life on the line in order to get this vaccine available. Now I’m putting my life on the line to get the vaccine available to people who cannot get it,” Brown says.
In attendance were a number of healthcare professionals, including Dr. Lipi Roy, the medical director of Covid-19 isolation sites for Housing Works in New York City. “Right now only 10% of the globe is vaccinated,” says Dr. Roy. “We will never get through this pandemic until we make sure that the Covid-19 vaccines are available to every person on the planet.”
Chants of “pharma, pharma, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side” and “no more pharma greed, global vaccines is what we need” rang out as protesters marched to the German consulate.
The New York protest is one of several across the country timed to coordinate with Chancellor Merkel’s visit. In May, the Biden-Harris administration reversed its position and came out in support of a vaccine waiver after intense pressure from Democratic lawmakers and over 100 countries.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement in May. “The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending the pandemic, support the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”
Organizers hope that President Biden will pressure Merkel to reverse course and allow the WTO to move forward with the vaccine waiver.
But protesters didn’t just target world leaders: They also turned their focus to pharmaceutical companies that are making huge profits from global intellectual property rules they played a role in shaping. Chants of “how many more have to die before you break the patents?” could be heard as protesters found themselves at their final destination — Pfizer headquarters.
The crowd quieted and a healthcare professional took the mic. “As a physician, I am going to be risking arrest shortly. I do that in the spirit of ‘do not harm.’”
With that, over a dozen people formed a line in front of Pfizer’s headquarters to block the entrance of what appeared to be an empty building. After several moments and a small change of plans, dozens of protesters moved into the streets to block traffic in a move they felt would be more disruptive. (Protesters held the street for an hour before being moved by police, and no arrests were ultimately made.)
“I wasn’t here to witness the walking dead,” said Brown, referring to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that swept the nation in the 1980s, as he sat defiantly in the middle of 42nd street. “But I’m picking up from where they left off.”
Indigo Olivier is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic and a 2020-2021 Leonard C. Goodman investigative reporting fellow. Her writing on politics, labor and higher education has appeared in the Guardian, The Nation and Jacobin, among other outlets.