AIDS Coalition Protests Merck Laboratories

The Harvard College Global Health and AIDS Coalition put a Valentine’s Day spin on the group’s campaign demanding that pharmaceutical company Merck’s increase access to its AIDS drug raltegravir in poor nations.

A group of 20 people—primarily members of the Coalition and several Medical School students—protested outside Merck’s research laboratories adjacent to Harvard Medical School on Monday afternoon.

The demonstration included pink, red, and white balloons—a play on Valentine’s Day colors with a symbolic message, Coalition member Nathan T. Georgette ’13 said.

“The implication [of the theme] is that their current policies are breaking the hearts of the millions of people who can’t afford their life-saving AIDS drugs,” Georgette said.

The demonstration was the most recent in a series of efforts by the student group this academic year to convince Merck to negotiate with the Medicines Patent Pool, an organization established two years ago to provide an avenue for pharmaceutical companies to provide generic versions of patented AIDS drugs for lower prices in poor countries.

Other pharmaceutical companies such as Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, F. Hoffmann-La Roche, and ViiV Healthcare have entered negotiations with the Patent Pool, but Merck has refused to do so, according to a Global Health and AIDS Coalition press release.

“I find it outrageous that Merck would demonstrate such indecency while peer companies join the Patent Pool graciously,” said protester and Harvard Medical School student Matthew F. Basilico ’08 in a press release.

The protesters performed a symbolic “die-in,” silently lying down for ten minutes to represent the “human cost of preventing people from accessing these drugs,” Georgette said.

As the protesters were lying down during the die-in, Georgette alleged, a Merck employee photographed protesters individually to record their faces.

Georgette said that he interpreted this as an intimidation tactic, noting that many of the protesters may be interested in entering the field of medicine and pharmaceuticals in the future.

“You have to question why they’re so unwilling for undergraduate students to express their views,” Georgette said. “We’re not damaging their property or committing any crimes, so it’s not like gathering evidence for a criminal proceeding. It’s more of an intimidation attempt, in my view.”

The Coalition began the campaign during the fall semester, Georgette said. In October, the group held a “pool party”-themed protest, featuring inflatable beach balls and a kiddie pool in reference to the name of the Medicines Patent Pool.

The group has held themed protests in an effort to make its demonstrations fun and friendly rather than aggressive, Georgette said.

“We realize that corporations are made up of people who aren’t too dissimilar from you or I,” Georgette said. “There are much more extreme tactics we could take that are more vilifying of the employees, but we don’t want to do that. What we want to do is offer an alternative that we think is beneficial to the company and for all of these people who need access to the drugs.”

Other actions that the group has taken include a demonstration outside a Boston pharmaceutical conference on World AIDS Day in December, and a petition with 716 signatures that was delivered to Merck’s director of global policy, Georgette said.

—Staff writer Dan Dou can be reached at ddou@college.harvard.edu.

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