Community campaign to waive COVID-19 monopolies wins breakthrough, but government must match words with deeds

September 9, 2021: After months of campaigning a coalition of national civil society organisations were invited to meet with Trade Minister Dan Tehan on September 7 and presented him with evidence that under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules a few companies have a 20-year monopoly on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments and low-income countries will not get widespread access for several years.

They asked him to support the proposal sponsored by India and South Africa for a temporary waiver for monopoly intellectual property rules in the WTO. This would enable vastly increased global production of vaccines at prices affordable to low-income countries.

In response, Minister Tehan said that he supported the waiver. Previously the government had said it supported the WTO negotiations, but not the waiver itself.

On September 8, the campaign group issued a media release to welcome this shift in language and to ask the government to match its language with action by publicly supporting the waiver at its meeting with India on September 11 and at WTO talks next Tuesday, September 14. Minister Tehan then made a statement at a media conference.

“Well we have always said we will support a TRIPS* waiver when it came to COVID-19. When the US came out and said this the Prime Minister welcomed the news. We continue to work constructively in Geneva to do everything we can to expand the production of vaccines globally. Because we need everyone across the globe to get access to a vaccine ultimately if we are to be safe”.

When asked: “Will you express that support at the WTO on September 14?” the Minister replied, “We have already expressed that support and we have been working with countries to make sure we can get a resolution for this issue. I’ve spoken to the Indian and the South African Ministers about this. I’ve spoken to the US Trade Representative Katherine Tai. I’ve spoken about this with the EU Trade Representative. So this is an issue we are trying to play a very constructive role on.”

This is a slight rewriting of history since Australia had not previously directly supported the waiver. Our campaign is determined hold the government to account for its stated support for the waiver and to press Australia to take a leading role in achieving it.

The media coverage has acknowledged the role of the CSO campaign in getting some movement in the Minister’s position.

The ABC:

The Guardian: Australia to support vaccine waiver after months of pressure from human rights groups.

Australia’s Catholic Church media also reported “Support for increasing global access to vaccines welcomed”: This was printed in full in the Italian section of Vatican News.

* TRIPS – Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights