Aid groups have accused the Morrison government of supporting a plan that will undermine the race to vaccinate the global population.
Trade Minister Dan Tehan has said he supports waiving patents on COVID-19 vaccines so that poorer countries can manufacture their own vaccines rather than having to buy them from the large pharmaceutical companies.
This would be much cheaper to do and would help boost vaccination areas in countries that are less protected against the virus, which in turn would minimise the risk of more variants emerging.
But advocates say the Morrison government has failed to live up to its promises, by endorsing a World Trade Organisation statement that fails to support a waiver on patents.
Mr Tehan was due to attend a meeting in Geneva on Monday to debate a proposal to lift the COVID-19 patents, via a waiver on the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement.
But in an ironic twist, the meeting was postponed at the last minute on Monday (AEDT) after Switzerland imposed border restrictions on Africa, preventing officials from the region from attending the in-person talks.
‘A step in the wrong direction’
Advocates – including Oxfam, Action Aid and Amnesty International – said the delay “exposes the failure” of the WTO to force pharmaceutical companies to share their vaccine know-how with lower-income nations.
They also criticised Australia for supporting a draft WTO statement that fails to sponsor the waiver, despite giving earlier support for the plans.
“Sponsoring this draft statement is a step in the wrong direction,” Oxfam chief executive Lyn Morgain said on Monday.
In a statement, Mr Tehan said Australia continues to “support” a waiver.
But he believes, as reported by The Guardian last week, that there isn’t enough support for the bid for it to be passed by all 164 WTO members.
“Australia is working with other countries to find common ground on a solution that will ensure all countries can overcome any intellectual property barriers,” Mr Tehan said in a statement.
But on Monday, advocates accused Mr Tehan of being all talk and no action.
Lagging vaccine rates to blame
“More than 100 countries have supported the TRIPS Waiver, yet much like we’ve seen with the US, the Australian government is all for the announcement, but lacks any substance,” Ry Atkinson, campaigner at Amnesty International Australia said in a statement on Monday (AEDT).
“Minister Tehan puts forward arguments that there’s no consensus, yet Australia is actively sponsoring alternative proposals that we already know won’t solve this crisis and don’t come anywhere near a compromise, yet alone even mention intellectual property rights.”
The aid groups, which wrote to Mr Tehan on Friday to express “extreme concern” about the draft statement, said Omicron is a “direct result” of low-income countries in Africa having vaccination rates below 5 per cent.
Convener of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET), Dr Patricia Ranald, told The New Daily that the TRIPS waiver is urgent.
She said the matter could go straight to a vote of WTO members after a separate WTO council meets on Tuesday to finalise a waiver proposal.
“If the WTO would only agree to the waiver on monopolies on vaccines then we would have higher vaccine coverage,” Dr Ranald said.
“These discussions have been going on in the WTO virtually for a year.”
South Africa and India are key backers of the proposal and intend to use the waiver to mass produce generic vaccines for nations in their regions.
The latest World Health Organisation data shows while higher-income countries have vaccinated 63 per cent of their populations to date, lower-income nations have inoculated just 7.4 per cent.
Billions of vaccine donations have been promised – including 60 million from Australia – but Dr Ranald said these programs were inadequate.
“The donation program, COVAX, hasn’t met any of its own targets,” she said.
“The donation scheme is the leftovers of rich countries. What we need is a global, vast increase, in production capacity.
“We will only get that through the TRIPS waiver.”
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) also signed the letter to Mr Tehan.
President Michele O’Neil said the government is trying to “backtrack” on its support for the TRIPS waiver.
“[They’re] putting the profits of big pharmaceutical companies ahead of the urgent medical needs of the developing world,” Ms O’Neil said.