The bus shelter advertisement with the BioNTech logo shows a woman wearing a white coat, blue gloves and serious expression. Beside her, in bright pink letters: “Your work can save lives or maximise profits.”
In recent weeks the advertisement appeared on bus shelters near the BioNTech headquarters in Mainz, west of Frankfurt, and at its new Covid-19 vaccine production facility 90 minutes to the north in Marburg.
The advertisements were part of a guerrilla campaign by The Peng! Collective, an anonymous artistic group, to draw attention to last year’s €450 million no-strings investment by Germany in BioNTech.
In a special video to company employees, Peng! demanded an end to the pandemic worldwide by jump-starting production in the global south – by legal or illegal means: “It is in your hands. Leak the manufacturing instructions for the BioNTech vaccine.”
The Peng! campaign has taken on a new relevance with two developments this week. First, Pfizer-BioNTech’s US production partner – announced $900 million (€747 million) in pretax vaccine profits in the first quarter. On Wednesday, meanwhile, the Biden administration said it backed lifting patent protection on vaccines, increasing pressure on Berlin to respond in kind.
In April 2020, after a UN vaccine donor conference, German chancellor Angela Merkel described it as “a global, public good to produce the vaccines and distribute them to all corners of the world”.
On Thursday, a government spokesman was cool on the Biden plan, saying "the protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so".
Leading Merkel cabinet ministers were equivocal, with federal health minister Jens Spahn insisting that “what’s decisive is the further expansion of production plants” – and a readiness to export vaccines, which the US has yet to do.
Foreign minister Heiko Maas said that if lifting patent protection was the way to provide more people with vaccines, “then this is a question that we will have to ask ourselves”.
As well as investing in BioNTech, Germany’s federal economics ministry spent €300 million last year through its state-owned KfW bank to secure a 20 per cent equity stake in vaccine producer Curevac.
Its mRNA vaccine is likely to receive EU approval by the end of this month or early in June. On Thursday, as chancellor Merkel held talks with her officials on Thursday about vaccine patents, an economics ministry spokeswoman said it was unlikely that Berlin would use its stake to back a rollout of Curevac at cost in developing countries.
”Through the [Curevac] shareholding the federal government wishes to make no explicit influence on the operations of the firm,” the spokeswoman told The Irish Times.
The Peng! collective says it doesn’t know if any BioNTech employees leaked vaccine secrets to an independent whistleblower platform, but it is confident its campaign achieved its purpose of highlighting the issue of vaccine patents.
”The politicians could have demanded something on patents with BioNTech and Curevac but didn’t,” said Robin Barnabas, the artistic name of one anonymous Peng! member. “Our intervention was an attempt to open new ways of thinking in a deadlocked debate. And I think we succeeded.”
Picture caption: Peng! Collective posters outside the BioNTech headquarters in Mainz. Credit: Peng! Collective