21 November, 2023: Last week Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, encouraged developing countries to put in place “effective mechanisms in their domestic laws” that allow them to use flexibilities in the Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) Agreement in health emergencies.
COVID-19 Pandemic and medicine monopolies
COVID pandemic exposed how medicine monopolies delayed access to vaccines and treatments
During the COVID pandemic 2020-22, AFTINET campaigned on the issue of access to pandemic-related medicines. COVID has demonstrated the limitations of the global health system and the Intellectual WTO Property (IP) regime that shaped the global response to the pandemic. IP rules gave a few pharmaceutical companies twenty-year patents on new COVID vaccines, which meant they controlled both the quantity and prices. Most vaccines were sold to high-income countries at high prices. This resulted in long delays in access to vaccines for low and low-middle income countries leading to lower vaccination rates. There was even less access to treatments when they became available.
Developing countries in October 2020 proposed a temporary waiver of WTO IP rules to share intellectual property and enable global production of more vaccines and treatments at affordable prices for low- and middle-income countries. AFTINET worked with a broad coalition of public health, union, aid and development and human rights organisations to generate public support for this proposal and to lobby the Australian government to support it. We commissioned a survey which showed that most Australian supported the temporary waiver and organised a petition with 50,000 signatures, organised rallies exposing pharmaceutical companies’ profiteering, and pressured the government and opposition parties to state publicly that they would support the waiver. However, at the WTO negotiations the government took a neutral stance, trying to broker a compromise between supporters and opponents of the waiver.
The waiver proposal was delayed for over 18 months by rich countries, lobbied by pharmaceutical companies, until the peak of the pandemic was over. The June 2022 WTO Ministerial decision on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) was a watered-down version of the waiver originally proposed which had little effect and applied only to vaccines. A decision on COVID treatments and other pandemic-related products was postponed and has still not been made.
In early 2022, for every dose of mRNA vaccine delivered to low-income countries, 56 were delivered to rich countries. Vaccination rates in low-income countries were less than 20% by January 2022, and were still only at 32% in September 2023. These delays contributed to the estimated 17.2 million deaths due to COVID, the majority of which were in low- and low-middle income countries.
The World Health Organisation is now negotiating a Pandemic Agreement to apply to future pandemics, which is intended to learn from the mistakes of the COVID pandemic. AFTINET is lobbying the Australian government to support temporary waivers on monopolies and other actions to share intellectual property and technology for all pandemic-related products, to ensure more equitable access for low- and middle-income countries. See our submission below.
- AFTINET submission to the Department of Health and Aged Care on Preparing for, and responding to, future pandemics and other international health emergencies (September 2023)
- Conversation Article: Why the WTO TRIPS Council must extend patents waiver to COVID-19 tests and treatments (December 2022)
- Video: Nurse protests COVID-19 monopolies by applauding pharma CEOs at Davos (May 2022)
- Open letter: 300 civil society organisations to South African and Indian leaders on COVID medicine monopolies (April 2022)
- Oxfam report: Pandemic of Greed (March 2022)
- Guardian Article: Trade rules have thwarted global efforts to fight Covid – the WTO must waive monopolies on vaccines, treatments and tests (February 2022)
- Open Letter to WTO: Access to vaccines, tests and treatments must not be delayed (February 2022)
- MSF report on COVAX scheme (January 2022)
- Civil society open letter to reach an urgent decision to waive monopolies on vaccine (December 2021)
Updated September 2023.
25 October, 2023: World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations which commenced more than 3 years ago on temporarily waiving some intellectual property rules for COVID products like vaccines, treatments and tests have hit multiple roadblocks. Most recently a decision has been delayed in anticipation of a report commissioned by the US.
20 October, 2023 (updated 23 October, 2023): The latest draft of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Pandemic Agreement was released earlier this week. There were concerns it would continue the trend of weakening provisions that we have seen through previous iterations of the agreement.
18 September, 2023: Experts are confident that the Pandemic Agreement, the latest draft of which is being discussed this week, will be adopted in May 2024 at the World Health Assembly meeting but there are doubts on how meaningful the agreement will be.
7 September, 2023: On August 17, the South African NGO Health Justice Initiative won a huge victory when the Pretoria High Court ruled that South Africa had to make its COVID procurement contracts public.
28 August, 2023: Negotiations to improve the international response for future pandemics are underway through talks for a new World Health Organisation Global Pandemic Agreement and amendments to the existing International Health Regulations.
22 August, 2023: The High Court in Pretoria, South Africa has ruled that Covid vaccine procurement contracts and related documents had to be made public. Judge Anthony Millar said “it is, in my view, self-evident that there is public interest in the disclosure of the records.”