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People hold a sit-in during a protest to demand German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Pfizer make Covid-19 vaccines and treatments more accessible outside the pharmaceutical company's headquarters on July 14, 2021 in New York City. (Photo: Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images)

People hold a sit-in during a protest to demand German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Pfizer make Covid-19 vaccines and treatments more accessible outside the pharmaceutical company's headquarters on July 14, 2021 in New York City. (Photo: Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images)

'Merkel's Delay Could Kill Us All': Protesters Demand Germany Stop Obstructing Patent Waiver

"We cannot afford any more deaths at the hands of vaccine nationalism and pharma monopolies," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky. "We need shots in arms and we need them now."

Kenny Stancil

Ahead of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's White House visit, global justice campaigners marched to the German Consulate and Pfizer's headquarters in Manhattan on Wednesday to demand that Germany and Big Pharma stop blocking a proposed patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines, which public health advocates say would facilitate greater worldwide manufacturing of sorely needed doses.

"The pandemic can only be defeated globally. It requires global effort and global solidarity. No one is safe until everyone is safe."
—Marian Lieser, Oxfam Germany

As the Delta variant ravages impoverished countries throughout the Global South—made highly vulnerable by the starkly unequal distribution of life-saving shots—hundreds of demonstrators, carrying signs with messages like "Merkel's delay could kill us all" and "Pharma greed could kill us all," hit the streets of New York City to denounce pharmaceutical corporations and Germany for their continued obstruction of a popular motion at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement. 

Although well over 100 countries have backed the TRIPS waiver proposal, Germany remains opposed to the measure.

"Germany is increasingly isolated with its stance blocking the TRIPS waiver, and is hindering global containment of the pandemic," Barbara Gerold-Wolke, acting general director for Doctors Without Borders in Germany, said in a statement.

For months, hundreds of civil society groups, progressive U.S. lawmakers, Nobel laureates, and medical ethicists have made the case that ending the pandemic requires suspending the coronavirus-related intellectual property (IP) barriers currently inhibiting the global production of generic vaccines as well as diagnostic and therapeutic tools. One of the key factors driving the inequitable allocation of vaccines, progressives argue, is an artificially scarce supply of doses caused in large part by Big Pharma's monopolistic control over vaccine formulas and relevant technology.

During Wednesday's march, which came just a week after the pandemic's official global death toll surpassed four million, protesters could be heard chanting: "How many more have to die? Break the patents now, Merkel!" Later on, the crowd aimed its denunciations of deadly profiteering at Pfizer.

Wednesday's action in New York, one of many taking place across the U.S. this week, was organized by a coalition of progressive advocacy groups, including Justice is Global, Health GAP, and several others. In an act of civil disobedience, protesters eventually risked arrest to blockade the street outside Pfizer's headquarters.

First introduced last October by India and South Africa, the proposal to suspend Big Pharma's coronavirus-related IP for the duration of the pandemic has garnered the support of more than 140 WTO member nations, according to Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. That includes the United States, which threw its support behind the TRIPS waiver in May following months of opposition.

However, a handful of countries—led by Germany and several other rich members of the European Union—continues to resist calls to drop patent protections for Covid-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. Perhaps unsurprisingly, pharmaceutical corporations that are profiting immensely from their monopolization of publicly funded knowledge and technology have been at the forefront of opposition to the TRIPS waiver. Because the WTO operates by consensus, the intransigence of just one nation is enough to thwart the will of the vast majority.

At the same time that activists marched through New York, health policy experts and social justice advocates argued during an online panel convened by Public Citizen that if U.S. President Joe Biden cannot persuade Merkel to drop Germany's opposition to the TRIPS waiver, Thursday's summit between the two elected officials will be a failure.

"We are way overdue for a temporary waiver to TRIPS," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a consistent advocate for vaccine equity, who recently led a group of House Democrats in requesting a meeting with Merkel this week. "While Germany dithers at the WTO, repeating the same talking points, Pfizer is profiting from human suffering."

"Everyone is at risk everywhere as long as the virus is active anywhere," she added. "We cannot afford any more deaths at the hands of vaccine nationalism and pharma monopolies. We need shots in arms and we need them now."

More than 3.5 billion doses have been administered globally, but according to Our World in Data, a mere 1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose. Meanwhile, even though billions of people worldwide have yet to receive a single dose, Pfizer this week sought U.S. authorization for booster shots.

Oxfam estimated last month that at the current pace, it would take impoverished nations until nearly 2080 to fully inoculate their populations, a manifestation of global health injustice that progressives around the world have dubbed "vaccine apartheid."

Epidemiologists have long warned that failing to inoculate a sufficient percentage of the world's population will prolong the pandemic, threatening millions of additional lives and livelihoods as the virus is given more time to mutate into potentially vaccine-resistant variants.

"We think that President Biden has the leverage and can ask Angela Merkel to look toward those who are suffering in Africa, Latin America, and in Asia, and join him in preventing unnecessary deaths by supporting the Covid medicine waiver, and leading other rich countries to join the U.S."
—Father Charlie Chilufya, Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar

Although Biden received praise for endorsing the TRIPS waiver in May, he has done little since then to publicly pressure U.S. allies to follow suit, prompting criticism from advocacy groups and experts.

Father Charlie Chilufya, director of Justice and Ecology at the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar, said during Wednesday's panel that "this is President Biden's moment for true global leadership."

The meeting with Merkel, he said, "will be an epic moral failure unless it ends Germany's blockage of an emergency WTO waiver to facilitate production of more Covid-19 vaccines and treatments needed to save millions of lives." 

"This health crisis is now also a global justice crisis, a failure of humanity," Chilufya continued. "We think that President Biden has the leverage and can ask Angela Merkel to look toward those who are suffering in Africa, Latin America, and in Asia, and join him in preventing unnecessary deaths by supporting the Covid medicine waiver, and leading other rich countries to join the U.S."

"America has already started showing leadership," said Chilufya, who welcomed the Biden administration's "promise of half a billion doses that will be coming to poor countries." However, given that "only seven out of 54 African countries are on track to immunize 10% of their population by September," Chilufya stressed that Biden "can do a lot more."

Emphasizing that "lives are being lost needlessly," Chilufya urged Biden to "move Merkel and Germany, to have compassion, to have kindness, and to prioritize human life and not profits." 

Dr. Joia Mukherjee, medical director at Partners in Health, said that "those of us on the frontlines of providing care in the Global South are gutted by this series of decisions," referring to ongoing opposition to the TRIPS waiver.

"We are facing the worst existential crisis of the 21st century," said Mukherjee. "And what we see is a lack of international cooperation, and we know it's the very international cooperation that we will need to combat the other huge looming existential crisis of climate change. And what this is showing us is that we get a huge F on our report card of collaboration."

"Is it acceptable," she asked, "that people in the Global South will die and that we just accept that?"

"The answer, I am sad to say—particularly being promoted by Germany at this moment—is that yes, that is acceptable," she said. "Why? Because we want to protect the profits of a company."

According to Mukherjee, "We need a war-time approach that will be collaborative in nature and that will assume that it is in all our best interests" to achieve universal access to Covid-19 vaccines.

Marian Lieser, the executive director of Oxfam Germany, pointed out that "rich countries, including Germany, have secured two-thirds of the available vaccine doses for themselves, although they account for only 16% of the world's population."

Condemning such hoarding, she said that is "why it's so appalling that Germany continues to be a major blocker of the sharing of... intellectual property, which could help maximize production and save lives."

"The pandemic can only be defeated globally," Lieser added. "It requires global effort and global solidarity. No one is safe until everyone is safe."


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