Story by Rjaa Ahmed
“COVID don’t respect no borders,” Anh Nguyen, a local organizer, shouted at a crowd of roughly 50 protesters and spectators who gathered outside Amtrak’s 30th Street Station.
“Why should we?” the crowd chanted back, indicating their agreement that national borders should not be an obstacle to vaccine access.
President Joe Biden visited the station at noon on Friday, April 30, to call for increased investment in rail service to fight climate change and create jobs. At the same time, protesters gathered around the station to demand global vaccine access.
The United States, along with other Western countries such as Britain and Canada, have blocked negotiations involving a proposal spearheaded by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization’s Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property. The proposal, which has been signed by 100 of the 164 members of the WTO, would temporarily suspend the intellectual property rights associated with COVID-19 vaccine technology to allow more countries to produce and import generic versions of the vaccine.
This temporary relaxation of the patents associated with the COVID-19 vaccine would allow these developing countries to vaccinate their populations as soon as possible instead of waiting months or even years for donations from wealthier countries to trickle down, according to the WTO proposal.
“The U.S. is putting millions of people at stake for the profit of pharmaceutical companies who already have a lot of money,” Nguyen said to the crowd of protesters.
Roughly 90% of the 400 million vaccines administered all over the world so far have gone to residents of wealthy and middle-class countries, according to COVID-19 data from the Our World in Data tracking project at Oxford University. In comparison, India, a global hot spot of COVID infections with over 20 million cases of the virus, has only managed to fully vaccinate 12% of its 1.35 billion people despite having the largest vaccine-producing capacity in the world, according to India’s own COVID-19 data.
“If you ever want to go on a trip to another country ever again, you should be behind this cause,” Nguyen said.
Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu, the director of outreach and education at the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, originally hails from Turkey and expressed anxiety about his family back home amid the global tug-of-war regarding COVID-19 vaccine waivers.
“There is currently an extended lockdown in Turkey due to the uptick in cases,” he said. “We were hoping they could visit us and spend time with our 2-year-old, but given air travel, the stories we hear about infection while traveling and their age, we cannot be sure when or if it will be possible.”
Nguyen also pressed the crowd to think about friends in other countries, as well as the benefits they have reaped from foreign travel, such as study abroad programs, to the areas hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jeff Ordower, another organizer present, said his heart has been breaking as he talks to friends in Brazil, Colombia, and other parts of the world.
“To see Indigenous elders dying by the droves in the Amazon, or people who make their living in the informal economy who can’t work, and now they are facing 2-3 more years all because of big pharma’s greed,” Ordower said. “We need to do what we can, so I am trying to make some small impact.”
Emily Sanderson, the senior coordinator of grassroots advocacy at Health GAP, was also present at the #FreetheVaccine protest and said she was there to hold world leaders accountable for causing the global inequality in vaccine access.
“I joined the protest at Biden’s Amtrak appearance in Philadelphia today because COVID vaccine apartheid is unjust, deadly, and preventable,” Sanderson said. “President Biden can and must stop blocking the TRIPS waiver and ensure everyone in the world can receive a COVID vaccine as quickly as possible.”
As advocates nationally and globally continue to lobby for relaxed patent control around COVID-19 vaccines, local activists tried to make themselves heard as the president spoke about the need to invest in infrastructure to combat climate change.
“COVID won’t wait,” Nguyen said.
“How many more have to die?” the crowd chanted back.
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