After months of holding out, Australia has at last joined other members of the World Trade Organisation in backing a waiver of patents and other intellectual property rights on vaccines, treatments, diagnostic tests and devices needed to fight COVID-19.
The organisation’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires WTO members to provide patent protection of at least 20 years for new inventions along with a slew of other intellectual property rights.
These rules make it difficult or impossible for developing nations to provide COVID-19 medical products, even where it would be straightforward to manufacture them.
TRIPS provides for exemptions, but the provisions are onerous and time-consuming. They apply only to patents, and don’t free up the rights to the information about the manufacturing process needed to make the treatments.
Later revised and sponsored by more countries, it would have enabled developing nations to manufacture diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19 during the pandemic without fear of legal action.
Australia waited for the US, then waited
Australia held out longer than the US, even though US companies had more at stake. But unless Australia and other wealthy nations do more to merely vote for the waiver, “grotesque” vaccination gaps are set to continue for years to come.
Trade Minister Dan Tehan came out in support of the waiver at a meeting with several community organisations last Tuesday. He confirmed Australia’s changed stance in comments to The Guardian the following day.
The shift raises the chances of the waiver proposal getting through, boosting the global supply of vaccines, treatments and testing kits — a move that would benefit every nation afflicted by supply shortages, including Australia.
Why the world urgently needs a waiver
The World Health Organisation says less than 20% of the doses administered have gone to low and lower middle income countries, and while high-income countries have on average administered 100 doses for each 100 people, low-income countries have only managed 1.5 doses for each 100 people.
- ^ TRIPS waiver (cdn.theconversation.com)
- ^ revised (cdn.theconversation.com)
- ^ May (ustr.gov)
- ^ longer than the US (theconversation.com)
- ^ The Guardian (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ TRIPS waiver: there's more to the story than vaccine patents (theconversation.com)
- ^ holding out (www.globalcitizen.org)
- ^ two billion (www.smh.com.au)
- ^ 260 million (www.unicef.org)
- ^ 1.4 billion (www.who.int)
- ^ less than 20% (www.who.int)
- ^ declined (msfaccess.org)
- ^ US support for waiving COVID vaccine IP is a huge step. (theconversation.com)
- ^ 2023 (www.eiu.com)
- ^ Alicat Scientific (www.alicat.com)
- ^ public funding (www.msf.org)
- ^ protected by patents (mattstoller.substack.com)
- ^ grotesque (news.un.org)
Authors: Deborah Gleeson, Associate Professor in Public Health, La Trobe University