Dolly Parton's Donation Advances Research Vaccine at Vanderbilt, But Won't Help Increase Access in Appalachia




Moderna and Vanderbilt--Sign the Open COVID Pledge 

WASHINGTON, DC--NOVEMBER 18, 2020--Dolly Parton’s name is being attached and celebrated for something other than music, Appalachia, and cultural icon status; she is being honored in the press this week for accelerating COVID-19 research at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. The celebration of Dolly and her generosity is ongoing, but the donation won’t have the impact it could have on the access to medicines gap, which has widened since the global pandemic.

In the preliminary findings, released by Moderna yesterday, Parton is listed as one of the sponsors. Parton made the donation in April in honor of her beloved longtime friend and physician Dr. Naji Abumrad.  A portion of her donation was used to develop Moderna’s vaccine, which is reportedly 95% effective against COVID-19. Moderna, like its competitor Pfizer, released the highlights of their vaccine studies, which have yet to be peer-reviewed by external scientists and medical professionals for safety and efficacy. 

While U.S. hospitals in major cities have been crippled, rural hospitals, like those close to Parton’s hometown in rural Tennessee have been devastated by the coronavirus. STAT news reports, “Nearly half of U.S. rural hospitals were operating at a loss in April…[further destroying hospital finances].” Simultaneously, the development and storage of the various vaccines exposed the deficiencies and disparities in the hospital system. Freezers with a capacity to store the future vaccine at extra cold temperatures would be needed to store a two-dose vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech, which they can’t afford and reportedly cost between $10,000-$15,000.

Klara Lou, President of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines at Vanderbilt University shared, “While Dolly Parton’s generous donation to Vanderbilt has been invaluable to the progress of COVID-19 vaccine research, the money does not ultimately hold the key to the end of the pandemic. A vaccine is only as good as its accessibility to the people, and Vanderbilt has not given any indication that they are committed to creating an affordable vaccine for all.” 

In August, Free The Vaccine participants released the viral Jolene parody video to get the attention of Parton and the Vanderbilt administration to urge them to sign the Open COVID Pledge. The Open Covid Pledge is a legally-binding license that would allow for accelerated access to COVID-19 IP through nonexclusive licenses, meaning Vanderbilt’s IP on any innovation related to COVID-19 would not serve as a barrier to access for other companies to produce. Given the scale of COVID-19, this will be critical in terms of ending the pandemic as soon as possible. In late August following a FTV rally outside of Moderna headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., the drug corporation announced days later they would not enforce the intellectual property rights on the drug. Sadly, there is no indication from Vanderbilt or Moderna that they have intentions of signing the Open COVID Pledge or submitting their research to the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool

“It is devastating to see that the U.S. is leading in the number of COVID-19 deaths, worldwide--250,000 people. It is high time our universities also showed true leadership where it matters. We call on them to do everything in their power to curb the pandemic as quickly as possible,” said Merith Basey, Executive Director of UAEM in North America. “These drugs were developed with public funds and should belong to the people. If not now, in the midst of a global pandemic then when?” adds Basey.

We believe that Dolly, a noted humanitarian, would agree that having an effective vaccine is great, but one that is accessible and free to all is better. Vanderbilt University leadership now is the time to model your current marketing message “Anchor Down and Step Up.” 


About Free The Vaccine is a global campaign launched by Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) and the Center for Artistic Activism (C4AA), working to ensure that tax-payer funded coronavirus vaccines are sustainably priced, available to all, and free at the point of delivery. Launched in March 2020, it’s in its second round of university student-led activism supported by medical professionals and allies with over 300 participants from 30 countries. To learn more, go to 

About Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) is a non-profit organization rooted in a movement of university students. UAEM seeks to: 1) Promote access to medicines for people in developing countries by changing norms and practices around university patenting and licensing; 2) Ensure that university medical research meets the needs of the majority of the world’s population; 3) Empower students to respond to the access and innovation crises. Since its founding in 2001, UAEM has grown into an international network of students in medicine, law, public health and related fields with chapters on nearly 100 university campuses in 20 countries. Find out more at



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