Media Release: Civil society groups urge new government to support strong action on COVID-19 medicine monopolies at WTO meeting

6 June, 2022: The General Council of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will meet from June 9 before a Ministerial Conference on June 13 to debate a waiver on monopolies for COVID-19 medicines. The original waiver proposed by South Africa and India in May 2021 would enable more equitable access to vaccines and treatments for low-income countries, but has been blocked for over a year by the UK, the EU and Switzerland, lobbied by their powerful pharmaceutical industries.

Civil society groups say a new draft text supported by the EU should be rejected because it covers only vaccines, excluding treatments and tests. It also fails to address all forms of intellectual property, restricts the countries which can make use of it, and has onerous requirements which are worse than existing WTO rules.

The groups are urging the new Labor government to support changes to ensure a comprehensive waiver for all vaccines, treatments and tests, that would apply to all forms of intellectual property and be available for all countries who need it, without onerous requirements. Labor in opposition supported more active sponsorship of the waiver than was given by the LNP government.

The waiver is needed because WTO rules give 20-year monopolies on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments to pharmaceutical companies, resulting in a handful of these companies controlling both quantities and price of vaccines and treatments during the pandemic. Rich countries have been first in line, where double vaccination rates are now 80-90%, while single vaccination rates remain below 20% in low-income countries, and treatments are even less available. The move to third and fourth booster shots has compounded this inequity.

Dr Patricia Ranald Convener of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network said:

“It is a scandal that the WTO has delayed access to COVID-19 medicines for low-income countries because some governments are protecting pharmaceutical monopolies at the expense of human lives . The Labor government must implement its policy to support a comprehensive waiver on monopolies to save millions of lives.”

Associate Professor Deborah Gleeson , Public health Association of Australia said:

“Developing countries need a strong and workable waiver of monopolies on COVID-19 medical products. The Labor government must throw its support behind them and insist on a waiver that delivers.”

Simon Eccleshall, Head of Programs, Médecins Sans Frontières Australia, said:

“We urge Australia and all WTO members not to support the current proposed TRIPS waiver text, in order to avoid setting a harmful precedent for future public health challenges. WTO member should continue to pursue a more ambitious outcome as outlined in India and South Africa’s original wavier proposal.”

Dr Sandie Cornish, Director of the Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference Office for Justice, Ecology and Peace, said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. By supporting the original TRIPS waiver proposal by India and South Africa the Australian government can contribute to the health and wellbeing of our Pacific neighbours, and of people in low-income countries around the world. Protecting lives should come before protecting profits.”

Mark Zirnsak, Senior Social Justice Advocate with the Uniting Church in Australia (Synod of Victoria and Tasmania), said:

“It is obscene that some governments are willing to put the profits of multinational pharmaceutical corporations ahead of the lives and well-being of tens of millions of people. The Australian Government needs to resist the current, and future, attempts to frustrate access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments through applying extra layers of red tape to WTO provisions.”

Sam Cossar, Friends of the Earth Australia, said:

“No one is safe until we are all safe. We urgently need rich countries to stop blocking this life saving proposal to free the vaccine from corporate monopolies.  When you have rich nations able to vaccinate their populations twice-thrice over while many poor nations are yet to be able to vaccinate even 1% of their populations, then we have a moral crisis. Protecting private corporate profits in the face of the tragedy unfolding on a global scale is not merely a matter of negligence but is in fact culpability.”

Katherine Tu, Head of Campaigns and Policy at ActionAid Australia, said:

“The new Labor Government has an opportunity to show leadership and help end vaccine apartheid by supporting a comprehensive waiver. The lives of billions of people depend on it, particularly marginalised groups such as women living in poverty.”