Why Australia must back the movement to waive WTO rules on vaccine patents

May 17, 2021: Unless all countries can vaccinate against COVID-19 in the next 12 months, new variants of the coronavirus are likely to force ongoing lockdowns even in countries like the USA and UK, which are rapidly vaccinating their entire populations, argued Dr Deborah Gleeson in the Canberra Times. Dr Gleeson is an associate professor in public health at La Trobe University.

She urged the Australian government to immediately donate a fair share of its vaccine supply to COVAX, the global vaccine distribution project. Australia must also support initiatives to increase the global supply of vaccines and other medical products to fight the pandemic, through licensing and technology transfer mechanisms, and waiving World Trade Organisation rules on intellectual property rights, she wrote.

With the latest pre-purchase of 25 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, Australia has now ordered 169.8 million vaccine doses from suppliers, enough to vaccinate its population more than three times over.

Despite the US government deciding to support a waiver of patents on COVID-19 vaccines, the Australian government still opposes this vital initiative from India and South Africa in the World Trade Organisation.

You can sign on to the petition to the Morrison Coalition government to support the waiver of patents on COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and equipment.

On May 12, 2021, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, commissioned by the World Health Organisation to review the international health response to the pandemic, said "the significant inequity in vaccine access must be addressed immediately".

The panel's report called for rich countries that already have enough vaccines in the pipeline to urgently donate through COVAX at least 1 billion doses by September 1, 2021, and more than 2 billion by mid-2022.

COVAX had planned to distribute more than 2 billion doses by the end of 2021, but has so far managed to ship less than 61 million, putting it way behind target. And 92 low-income countries are relying on COVAX to vaccinate their health workers and vulnerable groups - many can't afford to purchase doses directly from pharmaceutical companies, even if there was sufficient supply.

The panel stressed that vaccine manufacturers should provide licences and share their technology with more manufacturers, to increase the amount of vaccine being produced globally. But not a single vaccine producer has contributed to the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, a mechanism already set up last year to enable this.

The panel indicated that if initiatives to increase voluntary licensing and technology transfer haven't made progress within three months, a waiver of intellectual property rights under discussion at the World Trade Organisation should immediately come into force.