National church and civil society groups urge government to support WTO rule change for fair vaccine access for low-income countries


MEDIA RELEASE                                                                                         July 19, 2021

An unusually wide range of national church, public health, aid and development and other civil society groups representing millions of Australians today sent the attached open letter to Government Ministers. The letter urges them to support the proposal for a temporary waiver of patent monopolies on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments that will be discussed at a key meeting of the World Trade Organisation on July 20.

The fifteen groups include the Australian Council for International Development, Oxfam, Action Aid, the Australian Catholics Bishops Office for Justice, Ecology and Peace, the Uniting Church, the Salvation Army, Amnesty International, the Public Health Association of Australia, the ACTU, the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET) and Friends of the Earth. The full list is below*.

The letter says the waiver is needed urgently because current WTO rules give 20-year monopolies on new vaccines before cheaper versions can be produced. Each government must negotiate with pharmaceutical companies which have limited manufacturing capacity and control both quantities and price. Rich countries are first in line, but even countries like Australia are experiencing delays in supply. Under current rules most low-income countries will not have widespread access to COVID-19 vaccines before 2023 or later. Millions more will die as new and more infectious variants continue to appear and to spread to countries like Australia.

The waiver would increase global supply of vaccines by allowing manufacturing on a regional basis in countries like India and South Africa, which are already large producers of generic medicines.

The letter notes that US has expressed support for the waiver for vaccines, and over 100 WTO member governments are supporting the waiver. The APEC meeting held on June 4-5 and the European Parliament have supported the waiver proposal. 50,000 Australians have signed petitions supporting the waiver, and an Essential Media poll released last week showed 62 per cent of Australians across the political spectrum support it. The Australian government has not yet supported the waiver.

“The government should listen to the wide range of organisations representing millions of Australians, and the poll results showing the majority of Australians want them to support expanded global production of vaccines to save lives in low-income countries,” said Dr Patricia Ranald, AFTINET Convener.

“The Government needs to ensure that people everywhere have access to effective and affordable vaccines. Our common well-being is dependent on our willingness to collaborate and look after everyone, everywhere. The selfish response that puts the profits of pharmaceutical corporations first risks everyone’s wellbeing”, said Dr Mark Zirnsak, Senior Social Justice Advocate, Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.

Oxfam Australia Chief Executive Lyn Morgain said: “In addition to the tragic loss of lives, failure to take urgent action to ensure a Peoples Vaccine will risk the world facing an economic catastrophe that will further entrench global inequality and poverty. It is abhorrent that any country would continue to defend the interests and profits of pharmaceutical companies over the terrible human cost being wrought by this pandemic. Australia must join with other nations to compel pharmaceutical corporations to openly share their technology and intellectual property and bring an end to this pandemic for all.”

“Lack of access to vaccines and treatments means millions more will die in low-income countries as more infectious strains of the virus spread. The Australian government should support the temporary waiver to enable increased global production that would also ease supply constraints in Australia,” said Latrobe University Associate Professor Deborah Gleeson, on behalf of the Public Health Association of Australia.

“We need to end vaccine apartheid and corporate greed. A handful of companies control the vaccine access, technologies, and medicines that are necessary to combat, prevent, and treat COVID-19 globally. This is a global emergency that is deepening inequality and women's rights violations around the world. The TRIPS waiver is critical to saving millions of lives and putting us all on an even playing field,” said Michelle Higelin, Executive Director, ActionAid Australia.

* The fifteen organisations in alphabetical order are: Action Aid, Amnesty International, Australian Council for International Development, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET), the Australian Catholics Bishops Office for Justice, Ecology and Peace, Catholics in Coalition for Justice and Peace, ChildFund. Friends of the Earth, the Missionary Society of Saint Columban, Oxfam, the Public Health Association of Australia, the Salvation Army, SumofUs and the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.

Download pdf of this media release and the Open Letter here.