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100+ Public Health and Justice Leaders Call on Biden to Reject 'Global Vaccine Apartheid,' Ensure Doses 'Free and Available to All'

"The U.S. government has the capacity and the authority under existing law to treat Covid-19 vaccines as global public goods."

Yaquelin De La Cruz (R) and Hari Leon Joseph (L) prepare a Covid-19 vaccine for vaccination at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Florida, on August 13, 2020. (Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

Calling on U.S. President-elect Joe Biden to ensure that all people are able to benefit from vaccine research efforts largely funded by the public, more than 100 public health, racial and economic justice, labor, and faith leaders are among the signatories of an open letter issued Wednesday which demands a "People's Vaccine" for the coronavirus. 

The letter (pdf) was spearheaded by consumer advocacy watchdog Public Citizen, which has spent months advocating for equitable access to any vaccine that is ultimately distributed to the public and warning that pharmaceutical companies must not profit from the sale of a vaccine which people across the globe are depending on. 

"The U.S. government has the capacity and the authority under existing law to treat Covid-19 vaccines as global public goods," said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen's Access to Medicines group. "The alternative is a form of global vaccine apartheid, where billions of people in developing countries wait several years for vaccine access, compromising economic and political stability in the process. The people's vaccine proposal is a singular opportunity to restore U.S. global leadership, at this time of humanity's greatest need."

The letter was signed by leaders including former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, MIT professor Noam Chomsky, Margaret Huang of the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, and Rev. Liz Theoharis of the Poor People's Campaign. 

When he takes office in January, the letter says, Biden must expand manufacturing of vaccines by invoking the Defense Production Act and make sure methods of developing vaccines are shared across the globe. 

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"A People's Vaccine is a medical necessity, an economic priority, and a moral imperative," the leaders wrote. "The Covid-19 virus ruthlessly exploits existing inequalities, disproportionately affecting seniors, frontline healthcare and other essential workers, communities of color, people living in poverty, and people at more risk due to pre-existing conditions. Conflict over access to a vaccine that is distributed based on one's wealth or nationality—rather than on need—will risk millions of lives, delay our economic recovery, and exacerbate the crisis."

"A safe, effective, free, and fairly distributed People's Vaccine is the fastest and most effective way to fight this pandemic, reopen our businesses and schools, protect Americans and our interests, and save lives here in the U.S. and around the world." 
—100+ public health and social justice leaders

Currently, three vaccines have shown promising results in their trials, including one developed by U.S.-based Pfizer and German manufacturer BioNTech. The companies announced their vaccine showed more than 90% efficacy on November 9, and last week sought emergency use authorization for its discovery from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If the vaccine is authorized Pfizer expects to manufacture more than 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021. 

As Common Dreams reported earlier this month, however, just two days after Pfizer and BioNTech announced the preliminary results of their Phase 3 trial, 82% of the expected supply had already been purchased by some of the wealthiest governments in the world, including the U.S., the U.K., and the E.U. 

"A safe, effective, free, and fairly distributed People's Vaccine is the fastest and most effective way to fight this pandemic, reopen our businesses and schools, protect Americans and our interests, and save lives here in the U.S. and around the world," wrote the leaders in Public Citizen's letter. 

The letter makes seven specific demands of Biden's incoming administration:

  • Empower scientists to independently determine—without fear or favor—if each vaccine is safeand effective for approval. Neither politics nor profits have a place in the vaccine approval process. 
  • Ensure full transparency and accountability over U.S. funding for the development of Covid-19 vaccines. 
  • Guarantee all vaccines are sold at affordable prices, as close to cost as possible, to ensure that the U.S. and other governments can provide protection to people for free. 
  • Ensure that companies and research institutions share vaccine technologies and know how nationally and globally to overcome price and supply barriers, especially for those vaccines developed with taxpayer money. 
  • Prevent monopoly control of production in order to mobilize large-scale and decentralized manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines to adequately supply safe and effective vaccines for people here and around the world. 
  • Work collaboratively with world leaders and health authorities worldwide to deliver and implementa fair and equitable global distribution plan for the vaccine and all Covid-19 products and technologies. 
  • Prioritize protection for those people most in need and most at risk, including frontline healthcare and social-care workers, essential workers, older people, people with preexisting conditions at higher risk, and high-transmission communities here and around the world.

Taking these actions would be a reversal of much of President Donald Trump's approach to Covid-19 vaccine research efforts. The president has declined to join the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and its vaccine facility, COVAX, which aims to distribute vaccine doses to developing countries. Over the weekend, the world's 20 largest economies pledged at the G20 summit to ensure equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccine doses, but did not specify how it would plug a $4.5 billion funding shortfall. 

"The next U.S. president will have tremendous power to help decide who gets access to protection from this virus, when and at what cost," reads Wednesday's open letter, noting that Americans have already committed $10 billion in taxpayer dollars towards a vaccine. "With this power comes an historic opportunity for America to lead again by leveraging the strength, know-how, and generosity of our people to combat this disease here at home and wherever it resides."

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