In mid-March (pre-safer-at-home orders) I started collaborating on a global program to make COVID-19 treatment, testing, and an eventual vaccine sustainably priced, available to all, and free at the point of delivery. I’ve been doing this within the Center for Artistic Activism in collaboration with Universities Allied for Essential Medicines.
You may wonder: will pricing and access to COVID-19 treatments really be an issue in a global pandemic? While the current situation is unprecedented, high drug prices and millions dying globally from a lack of access is business as usual. We have 20+ years of evidence (think; HIV and ARVs, the cost of insulin, the epi-pen, Martin Skreli) that shows governments and pharmaceutical corporations don’t act to ensure access unless there is massive public pressure. And if history wasn’t an indicator, they’ve even said as much. Unfortunately, we see little assurance that with this crisis, things will be any different.
For the sake of us all, effective treatment and a vaccine must be available to and affordable for all. To move toward this goal, we put out a call for volunteers. Over 700 have expressed interest and 300 applied from 29 countries to work on the project every week for 16 weeks. We organized them into smaller Salk Squads (named after Jonas Salk) of 4-10 people, that are grouped into labs according to their region.
Participants meet with their smaller groups and join weekly, global meetings to learn about access to medicines activism and how to create innovative and creative strategies and tactics. They’re also given weekly “missions” to move the campaign forward. In the early weeks this has focused on getting coronavirus researchers receiving public funding to pledge to use more permissive licenses that would make their developments accessible and affordable.
The squads develop tactics, implement, and assess them. These experiments are shared so they can be built upon by others. As we understand what’s successful, those tactics can be deployed by the larger group. We organize and communicate on a private forum, running open-source software.
The project is so far running without a budget. We’re hoping to raise funds that would allow us to reimburse participants for material costs, offer stipends to those helping organize, and do additional four month cycles of the campaign that allow current participants help guide the next wave of volunteers.
You can learn more about the campaign at freethevaccine.org