Action for a free COVID-19 vaccine

IssueOctober 2020 - November 2020
Free the Vaccine’s four-mile Carnival March ends at University College London, 27 July. PHOTO: FREE THE VACCINE
Feature by Poppy Hosford , Devika Shenoy

Imagine this.

Giant neon pink COVID-shaped heads parading themselves through the streets of London. A huge globe. A giant syringe.

On 27 July, activists in giant COVID-19 costumes as well as students wielding giant inflatable syringes joined neon pink dancing protesters to persuade target universities to sign the Open COVID Pledge.

This is a commitment to making COVID-19 research and development available free of charge for use in ending the pandemic and minimising the impact of the disease.

‘Free the Vaccine for COVID-19’ is a global movement to ensure publicly-funded diagnostic tools, treatments and a safe and effective vaccine – or vaccines – for COVID-19 are sustainably-priced, available to all and free at the point of delivery.

So a second goal emerges: train individuals with innovative and creative skills to continue to fight for equitable access to medicines in the future.

This campaign was launched by two non-profit organisations, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) and the Centre for Artistic Activism. The campaign just regrouped for a second season, for which they have joined forces with the organisation Arts Corps.

The race to find a vaccine has been a hot subject of news for the past few months. Discussion as to when a COVID vaccine will be ready, which candidate will be successful and who will get it first has filled newspapers all around the world. Where are we now?

In an attempt to follow through on promises by governments to protect their people, various deals have been made between governments and pharmaceutical corporations pre-ordering millions of doses of potential vaccines.

This ‘vaccine nationalism’ has led to the realisation that poorer countries may be last in line when an effective vaccine is discovered. The UK is among the worst for ‘vaccine stockpiling’, with an estimated 340 million doses ordered from six potential vaccines.

Already governments around the world have invested billions of taxpayer funds into the research and development (R&D) of a vaccine for COVID-19.

This sums up the primary goal of the campaign promptly: a life-saving vaccine should not be profited from when we, the public, have already paid for it!

The UK is in the privileged position that the government can afford to ‘hedge their bets’ by buying up large quantities of multiple vaccine candidates. However, we must realise that vaccine hoarding of this kind will ultimately lead to supply problems for lower- and middle-income countries.

That is why our campaign is fighting for affordable access to the COVID vaccine for everyone across the globe.

Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 is a collective of volunteers – artists, medical workers, students, activists – from over 30 countries around the world.

Participants attend weekly online courses on innovative campaigning to promote access to medicines. Over 300 active volunteers in the first season formed ‘Salk Squads’ of four to six people (named after Dr Jonas Salk, who refused to patent the vaccine for polio and gave it to the world). Each squad made action plans for their geographical region.

The primary targets of the first season included

  • university faculties who can pressure their institutions to be more socially responsible in their patenting and licensing practices 
  • ministers of health or other funding bodies, and 
  • pharmaceutical CEOs.

These three stakeholders all carry weight in determining any vaccine’s accessibility.

In addition, Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 is focusing on adapting the campaign to local regions which may not be the driving force behind R&D but who still play a critical role in protecting the community.

Creativity and access

The ‘access to medicines’ expertise and focus of this campaign is born from UAEM’s mission statement.

A key focus is the role of universities in ensuring that publicly-funded medicines developed in their labs are licensed in a way that ensures access to the public.

Universities in the United States receive $41bn from the national institutes of health alone for biomedical research and development.

Universities are well-positioned to influence the way medical technologies are developed and distributed and they also have a responsibility to listen to their students, making student activism especially effective.

“A life-saving vaccine should not be profited from when the public has paid for it!”

Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 is different from many of UAEM’s previous campaigns because of its emphasis on ‘creative activism’. But what is creative activism?

The Centre for Artistic Activism, one of the co-founders of the Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 movement, defines Artistic Activism’ as ‘a dynamic practice combining the creative power of the arts to move us emotionally with the strategic planning of activism necessary to bring about social change.’

One of the UK organisers for the 27 July event, Rachel Reid, noted that ‘lots of collaborative planning meetings interspersed with lots of glue and paint, followed by lots of dancing and lots of walking’ reflected the journey for creating the Carnival March.

Incorporating knowledge from the access to medicines movement, the participants embraced their creative sides with the help of artists, dancers, and beyond, to create a spectacle that helped inform the public about the current vaccine development atmosphere.

A reminder that Artistic Activism is about using creativity and culture to build power and impact change.

Bring the sun

In 1952, there were 58,000 new cases of polio reported in the US, and over 3,000 deaths. In 1957, the first year the polio vaccine was made widely available, new polio cases quickly dropped to under 6,000!

Dr Jonas Salk refused to patent his polio vaccine, noting that it belonged to the people. When pressed, he replied: ‘Could you patent the sun?’

Today, polio is no longer considered a public health concern, thanks to Dr Salk’s open-access vaccine.

Dr Jonas Salk was right: we cannot patent the sun.

It may be hard to believe that pharmaceutical corporations are still attempting to price-gouge the public during a pandemic that has taken the lives of almost a million individuals.

Right now, as the virus has bound the world to shelter-in-place and lockdown orders, away from the lives we once knew and loved, we could all use a little sun.

The success of the Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 campaign stems from the willingness of volunteers around the world to devote a few hours a week to advocating for global access to COVID-19 medicines.

Join us today and help spread the word.