How the People’s Vaccine campaign challenged the dominant media narrative
It’s a year since the launch of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, which is campaigning for pharmaceutical companies working on COVID vaccines to share their knowledge free from patents in order to produce enough vaccines for the whole world. As Sarah Dransfield writes, media coverage has been a crucial part of the campaign.
When the campaign for a People’s Vaccine was launched, it was with the support of more than 140 past and present world leaders, economists and experts. It came about because of concerns from organisations working on HIV/AIDS that what happened with HIV/AIDS medicines – when countless lives were lost because antiretroviral medicines were unaffordable for people in poor countries – would happen again with COVID vaccines.
Inevitably, the media remained primarily focused on the domestic vaccine rollout. Instead of fighting this, we attempted to use it as a springboard. In December, on the day the first COVID vaccine was given to a British grandmother, we put out a People’s Vaccine story highlighting the fact that 9 out of 10 people in developing countries were likely to miss out on vaccines, whilst a handful of wealthy nations had enough to vaccinate their citizens several times over. This was a breakthrough for our campaign and got hundreds of media hits across the globe. More importantly, people started to talk more about the growing inequality of which countries were getting vaccine doses and which weren’t.
But building momentum for changes to what to many people are technical trade rules remained a challenge. When the Pfizer vaccine became the first to get approval for use, the media were broadcasting stories that focused on the problems posed by the need for cold-chain refrigeration. Yet we knew that the biggest barrier to people in developing nations getting vaccines wasn’t the fact they didn’t have enough fridges.
Most developing countries could not afford to pay for the vaccine
There was no mention of the fact that Pfizer had already sold the majority of doses to a handful of rich countries or the fact that at $40 a dose it was pretty much out of reach for most developing nations. This really compelled us to try to change the narrative, to raise awareness of the real barrier – the lack of available and affordable vaccines, the root cause of which was intellectual property rights held by the pharmaceutical companies and rich countries’ insistence on protecting them.
Perhaps understandably, much of the public discussion of how to plug the gap in the supply of vaccines to developing countries focused on the COVAX scheme, backed by the Gates Foundation among others, through which governments, including the UK and some of the vaccine producers – notably AstraZeneca – donate doses. While supportive of COVAX, we don’t believe it will be enough, by itself, to solve the problem and that rather than fighting for a larger share of a pie that is too small to go around, we should be increasing its size.
Public and scientific support for the People’s Vaccine campaign
We continued to warn that vaccines were being artificially rationed and did polling, which found that three quarters of the British public thought the Government should prevent pharmaceutical companies from having monopolies on COVID vaccines. We reached out to epidemiologists from some of the world’s leading academic institutions to get a stronger scientific argument for a People’s Vaccine. Two-thirds of those we spoke to thought we had a year or less before COVID-19 mutates to the extent that the majority of first-generation vaccines are rendered ineffective or that we’d need new or modified vaccines to deal with them. It gave our message that ‘we aren’t safe until we are all safe’ real clout.
It was when we saw an increase in media coverage from the pharmaceutical industry and its supporters against the sharing of Intellectual Property that we knew we were having a real impact. Proposals tabled by India and South Africa at the WTO, to waive intellectual property rights had garnered the support of more than 100 nations, although they continued to be blocked by rich countries, including the UK and US as well as the EU.
Support for the campaign was not growing fast enough
But, while we were making progress, it had not been fast enough. Our worst fears were realised as a new COVID wave started to devastate India. A situation made even more cruel by the fact that India, a country known as the pharmacy of the world, has been blocked from making more COVID-19 vaccines that could have prevented the horrific and spiralling loss of life.
The People’s Vaccine Alliance again called on its notable supporters, resulting in more than 170 former world leaders and Nobel laureates making a call for US President Joe Biden to make COVID-19 vaccines more readily available by waiving intellectual property rules. The pharmaceutical industry also ramped up their lobbing on the President in the media.
Finally, we had the amazing news that the US would support the waiver, which was a pivotal moment in the campaign. However, with the UK and others continuing to block the proposal, we still have a fight on our hands. We will continue to use the media to call for a People’s Vaccine, so that people in developing countries are able to get the same protection from the virus that we are lucky to be starting to see here in the UK.
Sarah Dransfield is a Senior Press Officer at Oxfam and media lead for the Alliance.