A small band of longtime AIDS activists, fed up with what they regard as President Joe Biden’s failure to scale up coronavirus vaccine manufacturing for global use, deposited a fake mountain of bones outside the home of Ron Klain, his chief of staff, Wednesday to represent the lives they say have been lost to the president’s inaction.
The activists, some of them veterans of much larger protests that played out at the National Institutes of Health more than 30 years ago, had already made similar demands in private phone calls with administration officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, a target of early AIDS protests who later became the activists’ ally.
But the calls got them nowhere, they said. So they decided to try more old-fashioned, in-your-face tactics. The mountain of bones, they said, was made by a set designer in New York. They planted it in front of Klain’s next-door neighbor’s driveway to avoid running afoul of the Secret Service agents guarding Klain’s house. The agents eventually asked them politely to leave.
“Nobody wants to be here in front of Ron Klain’s house, protesting a president that most of us all voted for,” said Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale University public health researcher whose activism on behalf of people with AIDS led to a career in academia and a 2018 MacArthur “genius” grant. “But we’ve tried everything else.”
He defended the decision to show up at the private home of an unelected administration official.
“What is it — 4 million deaths, 6 million deaths, 10 million deaths — where we can show up on somebody’s lawn and hold them accountable?” Gonsalves said. More than 4.7 million people are known to have died worldwide from COVID-19, but analyses of excess mortalities around the world suggests that the actual number is far higher.
“They represent the public,” Gonsalves said of public servants. “We pay their salaries. They’re not listening to the American public. They’re not listening to the global public. They’re not listening to scientific advice. So this is the least we can do.”
In an emailed statement, a White House spokesperson said the administration has taken “decisive and urgent action to save lives right now,” including by purchasing more than 1 billion doses of vaccine to donate overseas and working with manufacturers in India and South Africa to increase vaccine production.
“These are shots that are going into arms now and in the immediate months to come,” said the spokesperson, Kevin Munoz. “We’re pushing the world” to step up and do more immediately as well, he added.
The protest at the Klain home in the Washington suburbs was one of two “vaccine equity demonstrations” Wednesday by AIDS advocacy groups, including Prep4All and Right 2 Health Action. The other was at the Boston home of Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, whose COVID-19 vaccine was developed with backing from American taxpayers.
With less than 10% of those in many poor nations fully vaccinated and a dearth of doses contributing to the suffering of millions, pressure has been growing on both Biden and drugmakers, including Moderna, to provide more low-cost vaccines to the world.
Biden said the United States is doing more than any other nation to address the pandemic. Last week, at a virtual COVID-19 summit that he convened on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting, he announced that his administration had purchased an additional 500 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to donate overseas, bringing the total to about 1.1 billion.
But the activists want the president to exert more pressure on companies to share their intellectual property with other vaccine makers and to build up manufacturing hubs around the world.
“This is not just a political talking point; it really is life and death for millions of people around the world,” said James Krellenstein, who led the Klain protest and drove a U-Haul truck carrying the bone mountain from New York to Washington, D.C. “For all of us, the COVID summit was the last straw, where basically the sum and substance of the most powerful country in the world was, they will put in another order for 500 million vaccines.”