Activists Take Vaccine Demands to the Home of Biden’s Chief of Staff

A small group of longtime AIDS activists sought to represent the lives lost to what they see as the president’s failure to scale up vaccine manufacturing for global use.,


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Activists take vaccine demands, and a mountain of fake bones, to the home of Biden’s chief of staff.

Activists outside of the home of Ron Klain, President Biden's chief of staff, on Wednesday.
Activists outside of the home of Ron Klain, President Biden’s chief of staff, on Wednesday. Credit…Michael A. McCoy for The New York Times
  • Sept. 29, 2021, 6:45 p.m. ET

A small band of longtime AIDS activists, fed up with what they regard as President 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, on 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 S. Fauci, a target of early AIDS protests that played out at the National Institutes of Health more than 30 years ago 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 Mr. Klain’s next-door neighbor’s driveway to avoid running afoul of the Secret Service agents guarding Mr. 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 epidemiologist 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 — four million deaths, six million deaths, 10 million deaths — where we can show up on somebody’s lawn and hold them accountable?” Dr. Gonsalves said. More than 4.7 million people 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,” Dr. 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 spokesman said the administration has taken “decisive and urgent action to save lives right now,” including by purchasing more than one 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 spokesman, Kevin Munoz. “We’re pushing the world to step and do more immediately as well.”

The protest at the Klain home in the Washington suburbs was one of two “vaccine equity demonstrations” on Wednesday by AIDS advocacy groups, including Prep4All and Right 2 Health Action. The other was at the Boston home of Stephane Bancel, the chief executive officer of Moderna, whose Covid-19 vaccine was developed with backing from American taxpayers.

With less than 10 percent 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 Mr. Biden and drug makers, including Moderna, to provide more low-cost vaccines to the world.

Mr. Biden says 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. “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.”

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