In the lead-up to crucial negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in November and December, Amnesty International Australia is calling on pharmaceutical companies to stop blocking initiatives that could deliver vaccine equity for low-income countries, including the temporary waiver on WTO monopoly rules.
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.
November 11, 2021: Ahead of critical meetings in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) this month, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has published a legal opinion detailing the human rights obligations of countries in regards to the proposed TRIPS Waiver on COVID-19 vaccine monopolies.
November 4: On the eve of an important World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting on intellectual property this week, the Government has revealed that Australia will not co-sponsor a proposal to waive commercial monopolies on COVID19 vaccines, as Shadow Trade Minister Madeleine King MP and campaigners have urged.
November 1: At the close of the G20 Rome Summit, global civil society has condemned the inertia of world leaders in tackling medicines monopolies.
October 28, 2021: Ahead of the G20 Leaders’ Summit this week in Rome, trade union leaders from G20 countries, representing millions of workers worldwide, have made a joint statement through the Labour 20 (L20) Summit calling on G20 governments to support the TRIPS waiver proposal
In the lead-up to crucial negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in November and December, The People’s Vaccine have released a viral video calling on political leaders to take action for global vaccine equity.
October 21, 2021: Last week’s meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Council failed to decide on the temporary waiver on monopoly rights for COIVD-19 vaccines and related products, despite support from over 100 WTO member countries and numerous reports and protests urging it to do so.
October 14: Coinciding with the WTO TRIPS Council meeting in Geneva this week, activists across Europe and the globe have mobilised to call on European countries to #StopTheBlock of a waiver on intellectual property monopolies on COVID vaccines.
October 13: Ahead of this week’s meeting of the WTO’s Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS), Labor has called on the Government to co-sponsor a waiver on medical monopolies.
October 11, 2021: Two major reports have exposed the failings of the current system of global vaccine production and distribution, recommending both increased emergency donations of vaccines and the temporary waiver of intellectual property (IP) rights at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to enable production of cheap vaccines in low-income countries.