Fears Big Pharma is blocking Government support for vaccine waivers 

9 June 2021

Academics have told SBS News they fear the influence from pharmaceutical companies is holding the Australian Government back from publicly supporting the waivers for COVID-19 vaccines.

The Morrison Government is under increasing pressure to follow the lead of the United States and New Zealand in supporting moves to temporarily waive patents on COVID-19 vaccines.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) and other leading nursing associations across the world have written a joint letter to the World Trade Organization (WTO) supporting the waiver.

A group of 150 Australian lawyers and legal scholars have signed an open letter urging Prime Minister Scott Morrison to back the waivers, while 50,000 have signed a similar petition presented to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, SBS reports.

The open letter and petition ask the Government to support a proposal by India and South Africa to promote vaccine equity through changes to WTO trade rules.

The legal scholars and lawyers said the temporary waiver of patents on COVID-19 vaccines under WTO trade rules would "promote access to medicines for all" and level the playing field for developing countries as they individually negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to secure vaccine supply.

"Critically, the longer it takes to vaccinate the world, the more likely it is that new variants will develop that could potentially render current vaccines ineffective. Already multiple SAR-CoV-2 variants are circulating globally," the open letter reads.

"We therefore call on the Australian Government to publicly support the TRIPS waiver, not just for vaccines, but for all medical tools necessary to prevent, contain and treat COVID-19."

Michael Whaites, from the New South Wales Nurses and Midwives Association, told SBS that members supported the petition because they have seen the effects of the slow pace of vaccination first-hand.

"For us, this is a really important issue. We know that health care workers around the world are on the frontline trying to fight the COVID pandemic (late last month the World Health Organization confirmed 115,000 health care workers have died from COVID-19).

"We can't understand why our Government is hesitating. We're devastated to know that our Prime Minister may not be sharing those values of people over profit."

The patent waiver proposal by India and South Africa is now backed by more than 100 countries out of 164 WTO member nations.

According to a petition launched by Union Aid Abroad APHEDA and the ACTU, Australia has put profits before people and sided with large pharmaceutical companies by blocking and delaying passage of the waiver.

Public Services International (PSI), a global union federation of workers in public services, earlier this year released a YouTube video featuring nurses from around the world calling on people to demand our leaders act now on waivers.

“If you were on the Titanic and discovered a way to make lifeboats, would you use a patent to stop others from making them,’’ ANMF (SA Branch) nurse Tanya says in the video.

“Just so you could monopolise production for rich people and let everyone else drown in the meantime?’’

The PSI says some of the world's biggest corporations are using patents to monopolise profits and prevent the global scaling up of vaccine production. “This has already led to deadly delays to the vaccination programs which we are relying on to reduce pressure on us and our hospitals and finally end these lockdowns,’’ it says.

“A waiver would mean vaccines and supplies can be produced cheaply and at huge scale, making them accessible for us to deliver to our communities quickly and across the world.

But the World Trade Organization must give the OK.’’