Government urged to support equitable global access to medicines at WHO Pandemic Treaty meeting

Media Release  February 27, 2023

World Health Organisation (WHO) member governments will meet in Geneva this evening AEDT to start debating a draft Pandemic Treaty intended to learn from the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic and develop better strategies for future pandemics, to be completed in 2024.

Leading public health, fair trade, church, human rights and aid and development organisations have written to the Ministers responsible for Health, Foreign Affairs and Trade asking them not to repeat the “catastrophic moral failure” of inequitable global access to COVID vaccines, treatments and tests. The letter is attached. Quotes from organisation leaders are below.

The letter notes that World Trade Organization (WTO) rules for 20-year patents and other intellectual property rights on COVID-related products meant that most of the global production of vaccines, often produced with publicly -funded research, were sold at high prices to rich countries, with very low access for low-income countries. The COVAX vaccine donation scheme did not reach its modest targets of 20 per cent vaccination rates in low-income countries by the end of 2021, and even today these rates remain at only 27.7 per cent.

Because of delaying tactics by a few high-income countries, it took 20 months of negotiations for members of the WTO to agree to a limited change to patent rules for COVID vaccines only in June 2022. During this time research shows that over a million lives may have been lost through lack of access to vaccines. There is even less access to treatments and tests, and consideration of a waiver from WTO rules for them has again been delayed.

The letter urges the government to support proposals in the draft WTO Pandemic Treaty for:

  • temporary waivers of WTO rules on patent and other intellectual property rights to enable global production of vaccines, treatments and tests at affordable prices for low-income countries;
  • incentivise technology transfer for manufacturing of pandemic-related products in low and middle-income countries;
  • make public funding for research and development of pandemic-related products conditional on open licensing and sharing of intellectual property, technology and know-how, and include terms and conditions in contracts related to prices of products.

Associate Professor Deborah Gleeson, representative of the Public Health Association of Australia said:

“The yawning gap in access to vaccines, treatments and tests between rich and poor countries during the COVID-19 pandemic can’t be allowed to happen again. Negotiation of the WHO Pandemic Treaty is an opportunity to do things differently in future pandemics. The Australian government should grasp this opportunity with both hands.”

Arunn Jegan, Advocacy Coordinator, Médecins Sans Frontières Australia said:

“MSF calls on governments – while drafting a global Pandemic Treaty - to take concrete steps to rethink and reform the biomedical innovation system to ensure that lifesaving medical tools are developed, produced and supplied equitably where monopoly-based and market-driven principles are not a barrier to access. It is time to prioritise saving lives instead of protecting corporate and political interests.” 

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

“The WHO Pandemic Treaty is an opportunity to avoid the failures of the COVID-19 pandemic and put saving lives above pharmaceutical company profits in future pandemics. Patents and other monopolies on vaccines, treatments and tests must be waived from the beginning of the pandemic to ensure that they can be produced at affordable prices and made available on an equitable basis to low-income countries.”

Ry Atkinson, Strategic Campaigner at Amnesty International Australia said:

“Through the Pandemic Treaty we have the opportunity to help ensure the next health crisis does not become a human rights crisis. To achieve that, governments around the world will need to grow a backbone and finally stand up to the pharmaceutical companies and their lobby groups. Failure to do so in responding to COVID-19 cost more than a million lives and we cannot let that happen again.”