Australia increases COVID-19 vaccine support to Pacific Islands and SE Asia, but opposes trade rule changes on vaccines

November 9, 2010: The Australian government recently announced new spending of A$500 million over three years to ensure provide COVID-19 vaccines and immunisation technical support to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Kiribati in the Pacific, and Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam in south-east Asia.

The government’s new commitment is in addition to its international aid budget, rather than drawing from it as earlier commitments had. This is welcome, but it came shortly after Australia had opposed a waiver of intellectual property rules in the World Trade Organisation for all COVID-19 medical needs.

WTO rules give pharmaceutical companies 20 years of patent monopolies to charge high prices on new medicines and vaccines, with some exceptions for low income countries. The exceptions are difficult to use and pharmaceutical companies have lobbied to retain their monopolies during the pandemic, meaning that governments have to negotiate with them about prices for COVID-19 vaccines.

Australia’s newest funding amounts to A$167 million per year for three years, and at current costing of the cheapest vaccine at A$30 per person for the two doses required, this would buy 5.57 million vaccinations per year.

There are 10 million people in the Pacific Island states, and 547 million people in the eligible ASEAN states. A vaccination rate of just 10 per cent would require 111 million doses, costing well over US$1 billion. So Australia’s new commitment would enable immunisation of the Pacific Island and Timor-Leste populations over two years, but make little impact in the ASEAN states.