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.

A missed opportunity for accessible medicines: WTO drops TRIPS waiver extension

15 February, 2024: After more than a year and a half of negotiations on extending the June 2022 decision on for a partial waiver on some aspects of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has formally announced that it is dropping discussions. This comes as a blow to countries such as India and South Africa which have been advocating for a TRIPS waiver extension to allow the production of more accessible COVID medicines.

New patent rules in India-UK trade agreement will prioritise pharmaceutical profit over public health

13 February, 2024: The UK is fighting hard to include additional protections for patents on medicines in a nearly completed trade agreement with India, “tighten[ing] the screws” on India’s generic medicines production which is a crucial source of cheap, accessible medicines across the globe.

New policy brief finds that the TRIPS waiver extension is a chance for the WTO to increase access to medicines and retain legitimacy

10 February, 2024: A policy brief by Rachel Thrasher from Boston University  asserts that the upcoming World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial Conference (MC13) is a crucial window for WTO members to act to increase access to medicines by extending the Waiver to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

US retracts support for equity provisions in recent WHO Pandemic Agreement negotiations

31 January, 2024:  In recent Pandemic Agreement negotiations at the World Health Organisation (WHO), the US has rejected proposals to loosen intellectual property rules in the event of a future health emergency. These rules prevent developing countries from quickly making affordable versions of vaccines and other medicines in a future pandemic.

The effectiveness and equity of the WHO Pandemic Agreement threatened by late-stage EU access and benefit sharing proposal

29 January, 2024: At the end of last year, the Third World Network (TWN) reported that the EU circulated a proposal on access and benefit-sharing provisions within the Pandemic Agreement which threatened to undermine its effectiveness and equity.

Director-General of the WHO walks back on previous support for a TRIPS-waiver extension

10 January, 2023: At the end of last year, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, cautioned against undermining intellectual property rules. His comments, made at a press briefing in Geneva, were significant considering the ongoing, deadlocked discussions at the World Trade Organisation on whether to extend a temporary waiver of some intellectual property rules for COVID.

India, South Africa and others call for WTO General Council decision on expansion of WTO decision on COVID vaccines

12 December, 2023: Several nations, including India and South Africa, have requested that World Trade Organisation (WTO) members expand the WTO  June 2022 decision to change some rules on COVID vaccines  to include COVID treatments and tests, saying the risks of COVID remain urgent.

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