Wednesday, 17 March 2021
COVID-19 has exposed many structural inequities in Australia and internationally, from economic insecurity to wildly unequal access to health services. In 2021, the global vaccine rollout has come sharply into focus. Australia has the means to acquire and distribute a life-saving vaccine amongst our population. Make no mistake: this is a privilege. But what we are seeing on an international level is rich nations making strides towards full immunity while poorer nations are left behind. Australia is complicit in this.
This is why the Greens are calling on the Australian government to support the temporary waiver currently being considered at the WTO which would waive intellectual property provisions of the TRIPS agreement with respect to COVID-19 vaccines, a waiver which has already received the support of over 100 countries. Between programs and direct talks with manufacturers, Australia has negotiated for over 125 million doses. This is more than enough to vaccinate our population. However, 130 other countries have not received even one single dose. If a country cannot access or afford some of the artificially scarce supply, they'll have no option but to watch their citizens suffer. By waiving intellectual property rights, vaccines will be manufactured and delivered where they are needed most.
Our Prime Minister has said that it's a moral responsibility for a vaccine to be shared far and wide. I couldn't agree more. Access to health care is a human right. This vaccine is a public good. It is unconscionable to deny any country access to protect the profits of pharmaceutical giants. Australia has given $80 million to the COVAX program to help distribution in vulnerable countries. This is welcome, but it is also not enough. The COVAX program is struggling to meet its funding goal of $6.8 billion. It is also struggling to access vaccines among the global demand. Expecting this program to alleviate the burden faced by the global south is ridiculous. Even in the best-case scenario, millions of people are being left unvaccinated and at risk of becoming critically ill.
Some have argued that the intellectual property provisions waiver would hamper scientific innovation by deterring private investment. This is frankly a ludicrous argument. There is no evidence to suggest that this waiver would drive away those looking to invest. And, even if it did, is a pandemic not a good enough time to value lives over profit? Or do we insist on protecting corporations over people? This argument is clearly a smokescreen to protect those who profit from such predatory capitalism. Our priority should not be pharmaceutical company profits; it should be increasing access to a life-saving treatment. This should not have to be said.
As a response to the waiver request, Australia signed and circulated a letter to the WTO encouraging 'discussions' with vaccine developers. This letter—co-signed with six other countries—sounds nice, but it does nothing. It's a pseudocompromise we've offered to placate countries that face a real and terrible threat. To reject this waiver is to condemn the global south to either face crushing debt to acquire vaccines or let their citizens die. If there is any good that should be affordable and widely distributed, it is a vaccine in the middle of a global pandemic. The countries that are facing the worst of this threat are already facing legacies of previous neo-colonial deals designed to drive them into debt. This way, we would help to give them autonomy, moving away from the dependence they have historically been subject to and their reliance on the whims of our aid.
This waiver would not increase our spending. It would not cost taxpayer money. Australia has the ability to help at minimal cost and an obligation to do so. Rather than propagating a cycle of reliance, this waiver will promote countries' independence as they're able to manufacture and distribute their own vaccine. I call on the Australian government to value people's lives over the profits of pharmaceutical companies by supporting the TRIPS waiver at the next meeting of the TRIPS Council, which could happen as soon as next month.