Civil society groups say WTO decision on COVID-19 monopolies is weak and unworkable

Media Release                                                                                                      June 17, 2022

After nearly two years of delay, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial Conference has produced a weak decision on COVID-19 medicine monopolies which covers only vaccines, excludes non-patent intellectual property barriers, and contains restrictions which are more onerous than some existing WTO rules. This condemns the world’s most vulnerable people to inequitable access to vaccines and treatments. They will continue to die in greater numbers than those lucky enough to live in high income countries.

Advocates describe the decision as a cop-out, resulting from watered-down amendments put forward by the EU, UK and Switzerland, lobbied by their pharmaceutical companies. They argue that the outcome will not address inequitable access to vaccines and treatments in low-income countries, and that it is a bad precedent for future pandemics. Almost 300 global public health, human rights and union organisations have criticised the decision and called for stronger government action.

Background: WTO intellectual property rules give 20-year monopolies on vaccines and treatments to a few pharmaceutical companies, ensuring they control both quantities and price. Most COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, developed with government funding, have been sold at high prices to wealthy countries, where double vaccination rates are now 80-90%, while single vaccination rates remain below 20% in low-income countries, and treatments are even less available. Millions of people are dying while new variants spread and companies such as Pfizer reap revenues of $US36 billion in a single year.

The original comprehensive TRIPS waiver proposal would have boosted global production of affordable vaccines and treatments in developing countries like India and South Africa, which already produce most of the world’s generic medicines.

Dr Patricia Ranald, Convener of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET) said:

“The EU, UK and Switzerland have used the WTO rules for consensus to put the interests of pharmaceutical companies above human lives. This weak WTO decision will not enable adequate access for low-income countries because it excludes many forms of monopolies, includes only vaccines when treatments are also needed, and creates more restrictions than existing WTO rules. Governments must take stronger action to save lives during this and future pandemics.”

Ry Atkinson, Strategic Campaigner at Amnesty International Australia, said:

The pandemic is not over and the agreement that's come from the Ministerial Conference will do almost nothing to help bring it to an end.  Unequal access to Covid-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines will continue to be a reality for millions under this agreement, and big pharma will continue to line their pockets on the back of peoples' suffering. Countries like the UK, Germany and Switzerland who have done everything in their power to bring about this result should hang their heads in shame. History will remember this moment.”

Simon Eccleshall, Head of Programs, Médecins Sans Frontières Australia said:

“This decision prioritises protecting corporate and political interests over saving lives. The world needs effective solutions to the inequities in access for all COVID-19 medical tools witnessed in this pandemic. It is imperative that governments step up and strive for an agreement that adequately overcomes intellectual property and restrictive pharmaceutical corporation licensing so that countries can be more self-reliant in providing all COVID medical tools to their people, which is the intention of the original TRIPS Waiver proposal.”

Associate Professor Deborah Gleeson, Public Health Association of Australia said:

“The agreement reached at the WTO is weak and unworkable. It’s not clear this will enable any real change to the status quo, and instead of waiving rules, it undermines the rights countries already have under international law. The Albanese government should press rich countries to do more and look for other avenues to achieve equitable access to live-saving COVID-19 products.”