Say Yes to Drugs

In Uncategorized on January 13, 2010 at 10:30 pm

The Anatomy of a Campaign

Abby Schiff, Contributing Writer

Global health work occurs on many scales, from policy rooms to rural health clinics, from research laboratories to pharmacies in far-flung parts of the world, and each setting has its own language and challenges. As students, we are most comfortable in the world of the university. We can use our position to change the way Harvard licenses drugs developed here to increase access in developing countries. This fall, the Harvard College Global Health and AIDS Coalition (HCGHAC) teamed up with four other on-campus organizations (the Harvard South Asian Men’s Collective, the Association of Black Harvard Women, the Harvard South Asian Women’s Collective, and the Harvard Black Men’s Forum) for the “Say Yes to Drugs” campaign, which focused on putting pressure on Harvard to change its licensing policies. The campaign quickly gained visibility on campus, got 943 signatures on a petition that will be delivered to administrators, and raised about $5000 for global health non-profits Asha and Partners in Health. This campaign can serve as a model for raising global health awareness, working with many different sectors of the university, and taking action on what can be a complicated technical issue.

The cause is pressing. 10 million people die every year from treatable diseases. These are deaths that could be prevented if there were greater access to existing medicines, many of which are developed at universities. In fact, every vaccine in the last 25 years and 35% of all HIV drugs were developed at universities. Harvard made $24 million in 2004 from the sale of medical technologies, and continues to be a leader in research. When a potential therapy is developed by Harvard researchers, the Office of Technology Development helps the research team sign a license with pharmaceutical companies, who then price the product according to a profit-maximizing strategy. Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), a national student group, is working to change this situation by pushing for universities to write licenses that allow for generic competition in developing countries. Because drug sales in developing countries only make up a small percentage of pharmaceutical companies’ profits (Africa is 1.3% of the pharmaceutical market),licensing for essential medicines is an innovation that would increase access to medicines without significantly harming pharmaceutical companies’ or universities’ incentive to innovate.

HCGHAC, which is the undergraduate chapter of UAEM, worked on licensing during the 2008-2009 school year, but decided to intensify its efforts and focus on the issue for the fall of 2009. In addition to continuing to hold conversations with faculty and administration, we decided to launch a high-profile student campaign to get the administration’s attention and show the importance of this issue to the student body. We also sought to build off the groundbreaking work on this issue initiated by Yale’s UAEM chapter in 2001. Their student campaign, which included mobilizing student support and working directly with the inventor of the HIV drug D4T, led to the drug becoming available as a generic antiretroviral in developing countries. 800,000 people since then have been placed on treatment with the medicine. After settling on a catchy name—Say Yes to Drugs—we got to work, with emails flying back and forth over the summer.

In order to target the three constituencies, we decided to meet with the Office of Technology Transfer and other administration figures; meet with professors and researchers; and plan a campaign with a dance launch to gain student support. We also held a speaker event in order to raise more informed awareness about the issue.

Recognizing the fact that licensing can be opaque, we talked about how to best present it to other students, administrators, and professors. We held teach-ins with the Harvard Law School chapter of UAEM, learned about legal details of licensing, and practiced giving mock presentations to student groups before dispersing to spread the message. Developing this part of the campaign was difficult. As Krishna Prabhu ’11 said, “It’s a different thing having to make an argument on a test and having to convince your peers about the urgency, importance, and gravity of an issue like access to medicines. It’s required me to think critically about how to deliver a complex message.” Teams of HCGHAC and other group members split off into groups of two to present to student organizations and gain broader support. At times, the groups were asked challenging questions. Alyssa Yamamoto ’12 reflected that “receiving critical responses to my presentations of the campaign has been especially worthwhile—forcing me to comprehend common critiques of our cause and still defend the campaign.”

At the same time, we started meeting with co-organizers SAMC, SAWC, BMF and ABHW to plan the dance, the petition, the speaker event, and the surrounding campaign. Prabhu explained that “probably one of the best things that is materializing from this campaign is the alliances we’re making with other student groups… to not only inform students about the issues, but create a support base for future actions.” The five groups designed and ordered shirts, and everyone took shifts to poster, build two giant pill bottles representing the amount of generic or brand-name pills available for the same cost, sell tickets, and staff our booth outside of the Science Center for a week to solicit petition signatures. Crowds of people wearing trademark bold black tshirts could be seen dancing to music in the middle of the Science Center courtyard, handing out flyers and shouting “Say Yes to Drugs!” While the work was completely elective, some students threw themselves completely into the campaign—Yamamoto said “there certainly came to be a point at which I put more effort into SYTD than my own academic work or social life.” The hours spent together caused the group to become closer while working for a cause.

Student response to the campaign was mostly positive. By the end of the week, the campus was covered in “Say Yes to Drugs” posters, and most large classes were peppered with students wearing the t-shirts. Margie Thorp ’11 adds, “It’s very tough to disagree with the things for which SYTD is asking, so we have been able to get a high degree of approval from students across campus.” People came up to campaign members in dining halls and sparked conversations about Harvard’s pharmaceutical licensing policy. Jason Shah ’10 said, “From blog posts at each end of Harvard’s political spectrum, to confused stares outside of the public display, I have seen an overwhelming amount of interest sparked from this campaign. While the messaging initially is just catchy, the student population has come to see the true substance behind the campaign and has latched onto it.” We received positive reviews from both the campus Democrats and Republicans. A speaker event with Dr. Matt Craven of Support for International Change and Partners in Health attracted interested students. It’s debatable whether all of the 600 students who attended the benefit dance can hold their own about licensing policy, but we were able to raise money and awareness and collect signatures for the student petition. The dance created publicity in a way that postering and speaker events could not, because it reached out to a larger segment of the Harvard population.

The whole process involved a fair amount of delegating, and we were only able to get much of the work done thanks to the organizing power of a few individuals, especially Jason Shah. Having so many people involved in the process meant that it was easy to get large numbers of volunteers, but that it was a more difficult to administratively oversee progress. However, we benefited from having a wide distribution of talents and from having cooperation between groups. On a campus such as Harvard’s, where most people are busy and breaking through to the average student’s consciousness is particularly difficult, it was a huge help to have student cooperation. As the campaign progresses, the momentum from the kick-off and the partnerships that we have built will serve us well in convincing the administration to change its policy. We hope to build on the groundwork of this student movement in order to make essential medicines available to people who need them in the developing world.


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