‘Morally indefensible’: Australia urged to support waivers on vaccine intellectual property as US backs international movement

Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
  • The Federal Government has been urged to support a global agreement to temporarily waive intellectual property rights linked to COVID-19 vaccines.
  • The US today backed the proposal before the World Trade Organisation, which advocates say would allow developing nations to use established formulas to create vaccines at home.
  • Critics claim the waiver would lead to lower-quality vaccines and financially damage the pharmaceutical giants which first developed the jabs.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Australia has been urged to throw its weight behind a proposal to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, after the United States announced it will back a measure widely tipped to increase vaccine access in developing nations.

On Tuesday morning, US trade representative Katherine Tai announced America will join the growing chorus of nations calling for World Trade Organisation (WTO) members to temporarily suspend vaccine-related patent protections.

Nations which support the waiver, including proposal originators India and South Africa, argue that allowing free and unfettered access to vaccine formulations and know-how will accelerate the jab’s global rollout.

The United States agrees, arguing that permitting developing nations to manufacture vaccines from established blueprints will bring the pandemic under control.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis call for extraordinary measures,” Tai said.

Critics argue that making COVID-19 vaccine formulations public will be detrimental to the pharmaceutical giants which first devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to their creation.

Shares in vaccine manufacturers Pfizer dropped after the announcement and recovered by the closing bell, while Moderna shares finished the day down nearly 6.2%.

A peak industry group representing manufacturers argues the waiver could lead to lower-quality vaccines flooding the international market.

The United States — hardly the most lenient nation in terms of enforcing intellectual property rights — will now put those concerns aside.

“The [Biden] Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines,” Tai said.

But the United States, and the waiver’s current supporters, require further backing to get the proposal over the line. Given the WTO’s consensus system, full buy-in from all member nations is required.

Australia — which is yet to formally back the waiver — now faces a major decision.

In March, Trade Minister Dan Tehan said Australia had discussed the matter with the WTO, and expressed concerns for its potential impact on researchers and existing manufacturers.

“We’ve got to make sure that there are some protections in place for the millions of dollars that has gone into the research to create these vaccines,” Tehan told ABC Radio National.

Shadow Trade Minister Madeleine King has now called on the Federal Government to back the motion.

Acknowledging the need for continual “collaborative multilateral action”, King told The Guardian that Australia “should be working with international partners, the WTO and industry to ensure a waiver can be implemented constantly with the highest safety standards.”

Mehreen Faruqi, Greens Senator and spokesperson for International Aid and Development, said “Australia must immediately follow suit. We are one of the hold-outs and it’s morally indefensible.”

She was backed by party colleague and WA Senator Rachel Siewert, who called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to “act on this urgently.”

Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard also said Australia should step up — and temporarily ignore the potential ramifications a waiver could have on the bottom line of pharmaceutical innovators.

“The only way to end the pandemic is to end it globally,” she said. “The only way to end it globally is to put people before profit.”