After months of delay, last week Trade and Investment Minister Dan Tehan stated support for a World Trade Organisation (WTO) proposal allowing lower income countries to produce generic versions of urgently needed COVID-19 vaccines. Tehan’s statement was almost made in passing as part of a wider press conference and came couched in blatantly inaccurate claims that Australia has “always said it will support” such a proposal.
While this statement is welcome, it comes after Morrison Government representatives have spent months delaying and stoking opposition to this proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO), defending the rights of pharmaceutical corporations to profiteer from the pandemic.
In October 2020, the governments of India and South Africa applied for a waiver from the WTO agreement which maintains 20-year monopoly patents on new vaccines. This Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement means that pharmaceutical companies control the amount of vaccine they produce, and the price paid for them – regardless of the level of need, or the capacity of a country to purchase the doses they need. Waiving parts of this agreement would mean that COVID-19 vaccines could be made at a greater scale, more quickly and more cheaply, helping to bring the pandemic to an end sooner. This proposal had the support of over 100 other member governments, with others including the United States and New Zealand joining in support for wider vaccination access in May 2021.
While the Morrison Government “welcomed” the United States’ support in May, its own contributions have been less positive. As this waiver requires consensus to be passed, the Australian government’s decision to quibble with the precise scope and wording of the waiver helped stoke up opposition where a consensus on urgent action was needed. These objections were consistent with those made by pharmaceutical companies themselves, who have argued that monopoly patents create a necessary “incentive” to fund vaccine development.
Even aside from the morally questionable dimensions of applying this argument during a pandemic, on its own terms the argument simply does not hold up in the face of evidence. The major vaccines for COVID-19 were overwhelmingly funded by governments, with BioNTech/Pfizer receiving €465 million of EU and German government money, while Oxford/Astrazeneca received £1.3 billion from the UK government and $US1.2 billion from the US government (97% of the total cost). The US Government subsidised Moderna’s research and production by over $US955 million, and made approval-based manufacturing agreements with Moderna for $US3.2 billion and with BionNTech/Pfizer for $US1.95 billion. There was no shortage of “incentive” through government money for these vaccines to be delivered, yet these same companies are now demanding governments pay often extortionate rates to access vaccine doses – up to 24 times the cost of production.
While the vaccine sharing arrangement COVAX is working to increase supply of vaccines into lower-income countries through cost-sharing and donation, this system by its nature cannot work as rapidly as needed. Less than 20% of all COVID-19 vaccine doses have gone to lower income countries so far, and their rates of vaccination are over 50 times lower than in richer countries. At this rate, many lower-income countries will not have widespread access to COVID-19 vaccines until at least 2023.
During this time, there will be further strained healthcare systems and economic crises, and many more deaths and disabilities caused by a virus that richer countries will have bought their way out of through their easier access to a commodified vaccine. The delay increases the risk of further variants developing, such as the Delta variant Australia is currently facing – including the potential risk of vaccine-resistant strains, which in turn endangers the world at large.
A pandemic, by its nature, is a global concern. It cannot be ended through selfish localism, focusing purely on the richest parts of the world while allowing devastation to rage elsewhere; viruses don’t obey the human construct of borders, especially in a globalised economy built on movement. The pandemic illustrates the cruelty of hoarding wealth and technologies to reinforce inequality and suffering. It exposes the fundamentally interwoven nature of human existence – a condition which makes solidarity the only just response, an insistence on standing together and refusing to allow the violence of profiteering to hold the world to ransom.
As with its position on climate change, the Morrison Government’s position on TRIPS has massively increased suffering and harm around the world, which could have easily been reduced, if not avoided. While Tehan’s extremely overdue statement is welcome, it will be crucial to maintain pressure on this government to follow through on its word in the next rounds of negotiations.