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.

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Updated September 2023.

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.

WTO debate on open access to COVID-19 vaccines intensifies, new DG proposes ‘interim solution’

March 3, 2021: The majority of more than 30 delegations speaking in the World Trade Organisation General Council on March 1, 2021, were in favour of the proposed suspension of rules under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, for the COVID-19 pandemic period, according to a WTO official familiar with the proceedings.

Vatican backs WTO rule changes to make medicines accessible to all, as decision delayed

February 25, 2021: The World Trade Organisation has again delayed the debate and decision on the proposed suspension of intellectual property trade rules from its General Council meeting on March 1-2, to the TRIPS Council on March 10-11, 2021. Meanwhile Pope Francis, who has an ambassador to the WTO, has come out is support of the suspension.

On February 23, 2020, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the WTO, told the Council of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights:

Labour and Civil Society urge G20 to support more medicine accessibility during the COVID-19 pandemic

February 22, 2021: The World Trade Organisation will finally vote on the suspension of intellectual property rules during the COVID-19 pandemic on March 1-2, 2021. The global advisory bodies for workers and civil society to the Group of 20 rich countries is urging it to call on the WTO to support the suspension.

New WTO Director-General prioritises access to vaccines, faces challenge of waiver for WTO rules

February 17, 2021: Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, confirmed as World Trade Organisation Director-General on February 15, is making her top priority ensuring the trade body does more to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

A former special envoy for the World Health Organisation on COVID-19, she called the disparities in vaccine rates between rich and poor countries “unconscionable” and urged members to lift export restrictions on medical items.

Biden relents on WTO, greenlights new Director-General, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

February 10, 2021: Former US President Trump made life at the top of the World Trade Organisation hard for its former head, Roberto Azevado, who left early to take a job with PepsiCo. Then Trump blocked the appointment of his replacement, who had clear majority support. Now US President Biden has cleared the way for her appointment,

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala from Nigeria, is likely be the first woman and first African to head the WTO when the post is filled later this year.

Online Action – Support TRIPS Waiver for COVID-19 pandemic NOW!

February 2, 2021: The next round of World Trade Organisation TRIPS Council negotiations on improving access to vaccines for low income countries by waiving certain intellectual property (IP) rules during the COVID-19 pandemic will take place this Thursday, February 4.

The proposal initiated by India and South Africa is now being officially co-sponsored by Eswatini, Kenya, Mozambique, Pakistan, Mongolia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Egypt.  

WHO calls for urgent response to production failures for COVID-19 vaccines

February 1, 2021: World Health Organisation Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told a briefing on January 29, “If we hoard vaccines and we are not sharing, there will be three major problems. One, I have said it, it will be a catastrophic moral failure and two it keeps the pandemic burning and three very slow global economy recovery”.

Unequal COVID-19 vaccine distribution is a humanitarian crisis and an economic loss for rich countries

January 25, 2021: The Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce has commissioned a team of economists affiliated with Harvard University, the University of Maryland and Istanbul’s Koc University, to examine trade data across 35 industries in 65 countries, which explores the economic impacts of unequal COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

The Biden Presidency trade policy: implications for Australia and the world

January 21, 2021: Incoming US President Joe Biden has immediately issued Executive Orders which reverse major Trump policies over the last four years, beginning with re-joining the World Health Organisation and plans to address deadly COVID-19 pandemic, reversing his environmental agenda including re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement, cancelling his anti-immigration policies, bolstering the economy and restoring federal efforts to promote diversity.

International trade agreements didn’t feature.

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