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As Australia attempts to secure more Covid-19 vaccines, it is siding with major pharmaceutical companies in frustrating global efforts to introduce an intellectual property waiver that would allow generic manufacture. By Lyndal Rowlands.

Australia stalls vaccine supply

People in masks wait outside a walk-in vaccination centre in Bangkok last month.
Credit: Reuters / Chalinee Thirasupa

Australia remains one of the last countries frustrating broad support for a proposal that could greatly speed up global production of Covid-19 medical tools, including vaccines.

The proposal for a temporary waiver on intellectual property rights – originally put forward by India and South Africa in October last year – quickly garnered the support of two-thirds of World Trade Organization member states.

Under the waiver, third parties would be able to manufacture generic vaccines. Developing countries could purchase vaccines at a set price closer to the cost of production rather than the monopoly prices currently being charged, while countries such as Australia could still purchase brand-name vaccines at prices set by the pharmaceutical company.

In May, United States President Joe Biden announced that the US would also support the proposal, known as the TRIPS waiver, with New Zealand, France and Spain following suit.

Yet experts in intellectual property law and foreign policy have told The Saturday Paper that Australia has been sitting on the fence, while openly using pharmaceutical industry talking points to help other holdouts such as Germany prolong negotiations at the World Trade Organization.

Countries that have been stalling the proposal to share vaccine licences more widely have claimed the need can be met by a donation-based United Nations facility called Covax. Yet Covax has been plagued by shortages and unfair allocation. This week it was reported that Australia procured 500,000 doses from the facility’s pool of vaccines in June, more than double the amount allocated to the entire continent of Africa.

By dipping into Covax while at the same time resisting an intellectual property waiver that has at least 57 co-sponsors, Australia may be straining its relationship with foreign governments, many of which have seen their health systems suffer under the weight of new variants in the intervening months.

In the weeks since an APEC ministerial declaration described the TRIPS waiver negotiations as “urgent”, South-East Asia has become the latest global epicentre of the Delta variant. More than 38,000 people have died from Covid-19 in South-East Asia in the past two weeks, with countries including Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia battling their worst outbreaks so far. Together they have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the world.

Anis Chowdhury, a former chief in the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, told The Saturday Paper that sharing the intellectual property for vaccines through the TRIPS waiver would ensure vaccines could be produced at the scale and speed necessary.

“Once the recipe is known, it can be produced very quickly, cheaply, and the countries which do not have the capacity, they will have access at an affordable price.”

Relying on Covax is not enough, said Chowdhury, who is also professor of economics at UNSW Sydney. He said the donation-based model was “not designed for things like the pandemic, which requires a very fast and rapid response”.

The 500,000 Pfizer doses that Australia accessed from Covax may not be the only way Australia’s domestic approach has interfered with global efforts to speed up vaccine supply.

Matthew Rimmer, professor of intellectual property and innovation law at the Queensland University of Technology, told The Saturday Paper that Australia’s failure to crystallise its support for the waiver in an official statement is in “stark contrast” with other nations such as the US and New Zealand – and that after “heavy lobbying” from big pharmaceutical companies, Australia’s position on the TRIPS waiver seems “rather murky”.

As Australia continues negotiations with Pfizer and other companies for more doses, supporting the waiver, which Pfizer strongly opposes, puts the Morrison government in a difficult position. “I think there are real issues and problems at the moment,” Rimmer says, “with the massive monopoly power of successful vaccine developers.”

Ultimately, Rimmer thinks Australia would benefit from supporting the waiver proposal and that it could even speed up efforts to increase Australia’s own bio-manufacturing capacity. “Australia’s national interests would be served by much greater global production and distribution of vaccines, including in Australia.”

So far, the windfall profits from Covid-19 vaccinations have made at least nine people into pharmaceutical company billionaires, although they are not the scientists who worked for decades on the concepts included in the vaccines in publicly funded laboratories.

A current alternative proposal put forward at the World Trade Organization claims the current systems allow potential manufacturers to negotiate exceptions to strict intellectual property rules, but this has proved to be slow, says Patricia Ranald, convener of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network, as manufacturers have to negotiate individually in an environment shrouded in secrecy.

Geneva Health Files, a public health newsletter that has closely followed the negotiations at the WTO, reported that during negotiations Australia has called for “specific evidence of underutilised manufacturing capacity” before it throws its full weight behind the waiver.

Ranald told The Saturday Paper that these questions were “very similar to the arguments that have been put forward by the pharmaceutical companies as to why this wouldn’t work”.

In a submission earlier this year to a parliamentary inquiry into vaccine-related fraud and security risks, Pfizer opposed the waiver, claiming it “would not speed up vaccine production” but would have a counterproductive effect in the current pandemic “particularly if companies begin to buy up scarce inputs in the hopes of manufacturing a vaccine using technology developed by others”.

Pfizer said that its vaccine requires 280 materials provided by 86 suppliers in 19 countries. “If any one of the 280 different components from suppliers, however trivial, is not provided, we cannot manufacture or release the vaccine.”

Informal negotiations for the waiver will kick off again at the beginning of September. The Geneva-based negotiations took a pause as many European nations celebrated the relative freedom of summer holidays with higher vaccination numbers, while less vaccinated countries, including Australia, instead endure lockdowns.

The TRIPS council will meet on September 14, the week before the UN General Assembly in New York, where, according to a provisional list of speakers, Scott Morrison will speak in person on the afternoon of September 25. Depending on how the negotiations are progressing, this may lead to some uncomfortable bilaterals for Morrison in the rooms outside the general assembly hall – including with India, which the Morrison government has been courting as a key ally.

Although Australia has dipped into the Covax supply for Pfizer, it has also donated AstraZeneca vaccines to countries including Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Yet in comparison to the scale of need, especially in much more populous countries such as Indonesia, Ranald says, the supply of donated vaccinations is “tiny”. AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine was re-named as Vaxzevria this week, to bring its name into line with what it’s called in Europe and Canada.

India and South Africa, which originally put forward the waiver proposal, are among the many developing countries with capacity to produce billions of doses of cheap, generic medicines. Yet, while it’s possible for them to make cheaper versions of many older generic medicines, under current rules it could be 20 years before a generic version of Covid-19 vaccines are available.

Both countries have found that even accessing AstraZeneca, which was developed using public funds at Oxford University, has proved difficult.

In South Africa anger is growing that the country is being forced to export the doses it makes at home, while finding itself at the back of the queue to buy vaccines from elsewhere.

Likewise, the voluntary licensing agreement between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India – the world’s largest manufacturer of generic vaccines – has been restrictive and AstraZeneca retains control of ultimate recipients.

In July an Essential Media poll found that 62 per cent of Australians support the waiver to enable quicker and fairer access to vaccines for developing countries, with the proposal enjoying broad support across the political spectrum.

Strict intellectual property rules mean that the exception for Covid-19 medicines requires unanimous support at the World Trade Organization. When developing countries signed up to the new rules, they asked for assurances that exceptions could be made in the case of public health emergencies. Indeed, a TRIPS waiver was introduced once before, during the AIDS crisis, after prolonged campaigning from South Africa and Nelson Mandela.

The Saturday Paper put questions about the waiver to Dan Tehan, minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. His office pointed to a recent interview in which the minister said Australia had welcomed the US’s support for the waiver but did not say whether Australia would follow with its own support.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 21, 2021 as "Australia stalls vaccine supply".

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Lyndal Rowlands is an Australian journalist and United Nations correspondent.