Yes, export bans on vaccines are a problem, but why is the supply of vaccines so limited?

March 8, 2021: Australians were shocked by last week’s news that the Italian government, backed by the European Union, had blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to Australia. Dr Deborah Gleeson, Associate Professor at La Trobe University, explains in The Conversation Australia’s role as both a contributor to this problem, and a victim of it in this case. Her article was also reprinted by the ABC.

The Australian government is itself blocking the two main ways to overcome global vaccine shortages and the most effective distribution of them. The World Trade Organisation will formally debate one of these solutions – a suspension of intellectual property rules for the pandemic – on March 10-11, where the Australian government can make a difference.

While the Italian blockage will hardly be noticed in Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has so far been extremely unfair. By November 2020, governments had negotiated pre-purchase agreements for almost 7.5 billion doses, 51% of which had been reserved by wealthy countries representing only 14% of the global population. While many rich countries will have vaccinated their populations by the end of 2021, the pandemic will continue to spread through the majority of the world’s populations until 2024, with the risk of new variants that are resistant to existing vaccines.

The COVID-19 vaccines – overwhelmingly developed through public funding - are scarce because of privately held 20-year monopolies on the intellectual property and other types of knowledge, data and information needed for making vaccines. While there is manufacturing capacity available globally to ramp up vaccine production, the exclusive rights to make and sell the vaccines are held by a small number of companies.

These intellectual property rights are enshrined in the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which requires 20-year patents for new pharmaceutical products, along with other types of intellectual property protection.

TRIPS has safeguards like compulsory licensing, to be used in a public health emergency like the pandemic. But these are time-consuming and difficult to use, and they only apply to patents and not the other types of knowledge, data and information that are needed to manufacture vaccines.

Two important mechanisms have been proposed to solve this problem of artificial vaccine scarcity and to enable production of COVID-19 medical products to be rapidly scaled up. Neither has received Australia’s support to date.

India and South Africa put a proposal to the WTO in October 2020 that certain intellectual property rights in the TRIPS agreement be suspended for COVID-19 medical products during the pandemic. This proposal, known as the “TRIPS waiver”, is supported by many developing countries, but opposed by the EU, US and other wealthy countries, including Australia.

The World Health Organization has also set up a mechanism for sharing intellectual property, knowledge and data for COVID-19 products, known as the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP).

C-TAP has been endorsed by 40 countries and many inter-governmental and civil society organisations, but lacks support from many high-income countries, including Australia. So far, it hasn’t been used.

To address the serious COVID-19 vaccine supply blockage, the Australian government must support these proposed global solutions.