Australia still blocking change to WTO rules for global vaccine equity, while Quad proposal means no extra vaccines until 2023

March 15, 2021: At the World Trade Organisation meeting held last week, Australia and six other rich countries continued to block the South African proposal for a temporary waiver to some WTO rules supported by 100 developing countries.

The waiver is needed because current WTO rules give 20 year monopolies for pharmaceutical companies on vaccines, medicines and medical equipment. Existing “flexibilities” in the agreement intended to allow governments to suspend monopolies and manufacture or import cheaper generic versions of vaccines leave control in the hands of pharmaceutical companies. Each low income country must negotiate quantities and price for each vaccine with each pharmaceutical company, a process which experts estimate will delay access to vaccines to 85 low income countries until 2023.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General has warned: “the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.” The WHO supports the waiver and has urged global cooperation by governments to treat vaccines, treatments and equipment as global public goods through sharing of intellectual property and technology and scaling up production where it is needed.

A letter from 18 Australian national organisations on March 10, including AFTINET, the ACTU, the Australian Council For International Development, the Salvation Army and the Public Health Association called on the Australian government to support the waiver proposal. There have been a series of social media campaigns to pressure the Australian and other governments which are blocking the waiver, and the waiver proposal has been favourably reported in mainstream media, including the Sydney Morning Herald, the Guardian and the ABC.

Instead of supporting  the waiver, Australia put up an alternative proposal on March 11 for the WTO to assist low-income countries to use existing rules to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies. AFTINET’s media release criticised the proposal for putting the profits of those companies above the lives of billions in low-income countries. The temporary patent waiver is a quicker and fairer way of ensuring access to vaccines.

After a meeting between Australia US, Japan and India on March 13, known as the Quad, the Australian government also trumpeted its contribution of $100 million to fund the production of one billion vaccines in India by the end of 2022, which would be distributed to Asian and Pacific island countries in 2023. Reports of the meeting make it clear that this initiative was made for strategic rather than humanitarian reasons in response to China’s offer of generic vaccines in the region.

This extra capacity is welcome, but the distribution to the Asia Pacific region is still delayed for three years, and it will not address some of the areas of greatest need in other regions like Africa.

The WTO waiver proposal is now set to be discussed again at a meeting in mid-April.