Next week, representatives from 164 countries will gather virtually at the World Trade Organization (WTO) General Council. One burning item on the agenda that we, as a medical humanitarian organisation, will be keenly following is whether a landmark proposal to facilitate access to COVID-19 medical tools will be supported by the majority of member states.
Until now, Australia has indicated, along with seven other countries and the European Union, that it will oppose this proposal. Why? It says other mechanisms are in place to enable countries to purchase, import and manufacture the drugs, diagnostics, vaccines and medical equipment they need to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We disagree. These mechanisms aren't fast or broad enough to tackle the pandemic on a global scale and will leave millions behind.
In October, India and South Africa proposed a solution. They called on the WTO to prevent member countries from enforcing patents, trade secrets and pharmaceutical monopolies on all COVID-19 medical tools under the WTO agreement on trade-related intellectual property rights, known as TRIPS. It simply states that intellectual property rules concerning COVID-19 are off limits until the WHO confirms the pandemic is over.
This waiver would allow governments and companies to freely collaborate to produce and supply more COVID-19 medical tools and harness unused capacity in developing countries to manufacture more affordable drugs, tests and vaccines until global herd immunity is reached.
Despite the potential shortages, pharmaceutical companies continue to fiercely defend their intellectual property, knowingly limiting manufacturing and supply capacities.
This bold move by India and South Africa offers the world the chance to avoid repeating the tragedy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when monopolies on lifesaving treatments saw people in high-income countries get access to HIV medicines while millions in developing countries were left to die.
More than 100 countries support this waiver, along with global health bodies including Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the World Health Organization, UNAIDS and UNITAID.
So why not Australia?
When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, there was overwhelming consensus among states on the urgent need for international collaboration to speed up product development, scale up manufacturing, expand the supply of effective medical technologies and ensure everyone, everywhere, was protected from its impact. In September, Prime Minister Morrison stated at the UN General Assembly that it was "a global responsibility, and a moral responsibility, for a vaccine to be shared far and wide".
But global supply of vaccines is likely to be far short of what is needed, constrained by limited manufacturing capacity and countries hoarding doses. Wealthy countries, including Australia, representing only 13 per cent of the global population have already locked up at least half of the doses of the world's five leading potential vaccines. Australia has also struck a deal to start manufacturing vaccines here, enough to cover all Australians as well as neighbouring countries in the Pacific. While this is reassuring for us lucky Australians and our neighbours, what about the rest of the world?
Despite the potential shortages, pharmaceutical companies continue to fiercely defend their intellectual property, knowingly limiting manufacturing and supply capacities. Pharma companies have rejected initiatives calling for open sharing of COVID-19 technologies. They're treating it as business as usual. Many of these companies received billions of dollars in government funding to support fast-tracked research, development, testing and trials for vaccines and treatments.
The proposed waiver would temporarily empower governments to take expedited actions when accessing IP-protected technologies that are needed to protect public health.
Australia says intellectual property is not a barrier and flexibility within trade rules, such as compulsory licences or parallel importations, allows countries to import or manufacture medical products if public health priorities demand it.
Based on our experience, we know these flexibilities don't go far enough to respond to the urgent, global needs of a pandemic, because they require a product-by-product, country-by-country agreement. This is why the waiver is so important. It upends the secretive government/pharmaceutical backroom bargaining for one-off deals and fast-tracks solutions.
Put simply, if Australia doesn't support this waiver, it stands directly in the way of others saving lives. The reality is the pandemic isn't over until it's over for everyone.
- Jennifer Tierney is executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières in Australia. MSF is calling on Australians to show their support for the waiver by signing this petition.