As health care workers around the world continue to put their lives at risk on the front lines of the pandemic, some are calling out the injustice of Big Pharma’s massive profits when it comes to crucial COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

One such health care worker is George Poe Williams.

Williams, a 51-year-old nurse from Liberia, expressed his frustration outside of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in May, when he held a one-man protest. He launched a “round of applause” for the pharmaceutical executives in attendance who continue to benefit from patents on life-saving COVID-19 resources.

“The world clapped for us health workers, yet over 180,000 of us have died,” he told Global Citizen. “We are the losers of this crisis. I wanted to turn this applause on its head by clapping for the cynical winners of this pandemic — those who are making billions at our expense.”

In just the first quarter of 2022, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna reported a combined revenue of $38.5 billion. Last year, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla took home more than $24 million, a 15% increase over the year before. Williams said that he would have to work every day until the year 6100 to earn that same amount.

His ultimate goal in protesting was not just to criticize. Williams hoped to use the moment to highlight the urgent need for governments to back the TRIPS waiver, an international agreement that would unlock certain intellectual property (IP) rights that currently restrict access to life-saving COVID-19 medical tools. These restrictions have allowed companies like Pfizer and Moderna to maintain a monopoly around critical medical technology, limiting its supply, specifically in low- and middle-income countries.

The TRIPS waiver would allow producers around the world to manufacture vaccines and treatments, speeding up the production process and enabling health care workers to better protect their communities. Nearly two years have passed since the waiver was first proposed back in October 2020 and it is still being negotiated.

“This isn’t just about this COVID-19 pandemic,” Williams said. “It also serves as a roadmap for all future health crises. When they write the history books, I want to be sure that we learned from our brutal experience of ebola and COVID-19, and finally implement rules which make life-saving medicines as accessible to us health workers as possible.”

Led by India and South Africa, more than 100 countries support the TRIPS waiver. But entities like the European Union, Germany, Switzerland, and the UK continue to block its passage.

Another concern is that countries will arrive at a compromise characterized by key limitations. In March, there were reports that the EU, South Africa, India, and the US had agreed on a waiver that only addressed COVID-19 vaccines, leaving out tests and treatments. The compromise also only applied to patents and left out other critical IP, like manufacturing know-how and undisclosed clinical data, which would actively enable other producers to contribute to supply.

“I am disgusted by the number of people dying in this day and age when the technology to save lives exists,” Williams said. “The problem is [the] underfunding of our health systems and profiteering by pharma firms, which restricts our access to vital medicines. I wonder how many more people should die before the World Trade Organization (WTO) will invoke this patent waiver.”

Williams is not the only health care worker who has had enough of the political stalling. More than 1,000 doctors, nurses, and medical students are urging the Biden administration in the US to “actively cooperate with South Africa, India, and other nations to secure a comprehensive and effective emergency waiver of global intellectual property rules.” 

Doctors for Vaccine Equity is another coalition of health care workers — this one comprising more than 350 doctors in Ireland — calling for the TRIPS waiver and more equitable vaccine distribution.

The TRIPS waiver could be passed at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference on June 13.


Defeat Poverty

Why This Nurse Held a Solo Protest Against Vaccine Patents at Davos

By Kristine Liao