Calls mount for Australia to agree to COVID-19 patent waiver

June 9, 2021
June 3 vigil outside the Australian Consulate in San Francisco. Photo: AFINET/Facebook

Ahead of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting to discuss a proposal to waive some trade agreement obligations in relation to the COVID-19 vaccine, civil society organisations gathered outside the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on June 7 to hand over a petition supporting fair access for vaccines for all.

Australian Fair trade and Investment Network (AFTINET), Amnesty International Australia, GetUp!, NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA, Public Services International and the Humanism Project collected more than 50,000 signatures.

The WTO said on June 7, ahead of the June 8-9 meeting, it had received a petition supporting fair access to vaccines signed by more than 2.7 million people globally. The United States, Russia and China recently announced their support for a TRIPS waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, joining over 100 other nations who had earlier backed the concept.

The Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement is an international treaty which regulates intellectual property rights.

AFTINET convener Dr Patricia Ranald explained that WTO rules for 20-year patent monopolies “give control of vaccines and treatments to  pharmaceutical companies, delaying access for most people in low-income countries until 2023. Millions will die while pharma companies make billions.” She said the temporary waiver of WTO rules will increase global production and provide faster access for all.

Last October, India and South Africa proposed a temporary waiver on aspects of the trade agreement due to the COVID-19 pandemic which would remove supply barriers.

Supporting the vaccine patent waiver, Paul Oosting, GetUp! national director, said “It's a matter of life and death”, a lot more than intellectual property rights.

“It is wrong for Australia, as one of 12 member states, to block the waiver proposal”, he said, adding that the federal government should “stand with people and not profits for big pharmaceutical companies”. Amnesty International Australia spokesperson Tim O’Connor said the government must “stop blocking the TRIPS waiver and not put Big Pharma ahead of people”. He added that Australia has “a vital role to play in the equal access of vaccines, particularly in our region”.

Union Aid Abroad APHEDA executive officer Kate Lee pointed out that with more than 3.7 million COVID-19 deaths already “Australia must show leadership to save lives. The world needs the TRIPS waiver now to make vaccines accessible and affordable to all.”

Dr Haroon Kasim from the Humanism Project said the government must recognise its “human rights obligations” which recognises the right to health and life for all. It must stop blocking a consensus decision on TRIPS waiver and “support developing states to more readily protect themselves and their citizens from this raging pandemic”.

Michael Whaite, from the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association said that his union has looked “in horror” at the situation facing colleagues in India and elsewhere during this pandemic. “Many still have no access to vaccines or appropriate personal protective equipment while the pandemic rages.”

“It’s time for the government to stop dragging its feet on this critical global public health measure. It’s well past time that [PM] Scott Morrison put people over profit,” he said.

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