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 WTO Intellectual 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)  waiver proposal was a watered-down version of the original proposal, which had little effect and applied only to vaccines. A decision on COVID treatments and other pandemic-related products like tests 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 (WHO) 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.

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