Under World Trade Organisation (WTO) Rules, pharmaceutical companies have a 20-year monopoly on COVID-19 vaccines. Each country’s government must negotiate with them on prices and quantities.
Low-income countries have struggled to find the money to access supplies, causing delays in the vaccine rollout and needless deaths and suffering.
Generally, I am a strong supporter of intellectual property rights. However, the coronavirus pandemic is not business as usual. It is an emergency, requiring an emergency response. It is not acceptable to have people dying in poor countries because the pharmaceutical companies will not allow low-income countries to get access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. It is also enlightened self-interest for the rest of the world to support people in poor countries getting vaccinated. While ever coronavirus has the upper hand in any country, we run the risk of it being transmitted to the rest of us, and of it mutating into more contagious and deadly variants.
More than 100 nations have called on the WTO to temporarily waive monopoly rules on vaccines and treatments. This would enable global production to be ramped up and make the vaccines much more accessible for people in low-income countries. India and South Africa, who of course have experienced severe coronavirus outbreaks, are keen to produce these vaccines.
Unfortunately, the Australian Government, until now, was not one of those nations. More than 50,000 Australians signed petitions urging the Government to support the proposed changes to trade rules.
It is therefore pleasing that the Australian Government has responded to public opinion with a change of heart. Trade Minister Dan Tehan has now said he supports the waiver. We are now joining the US, New Zealand, and many other countries on the right side of history. One of the many flaws in the way the WTO does business is a requirement that this kind of decision be unanimous, but hopefully some of the European nations that have been blocking the waiver will now support it, and the world can tackle the virus with more urgency than it has shown over the last 18 months.
The Hon. Kelvin Thomson
Sustainable Australia Party