Pressure is mounting on holdout countries including Australia to waive patent protections of Covid vaccines to help fast track production of the jabs for developing countries.
It comes after the Biden administration’s blockbuster move to support an easing of patent and other protections on the vaccines, which many hope will help poorer countries tackle the pandemic sooner.
The move to support waiving intellectual property protections under World Trade Organisation rules marked a dramatic shift for the US, which had previously lined up with many other developed nations opposed to the idea floated by India and South Africa.
Andrew Stroehlein, from the European arm of Human Rights Watch has for months shared a world map showing the countries opposed to the idea.
Ahead of Biden's shock announcement, Australia was among those who ostensibly opposed the idea.
And that represents a major hurdle, as any decision at the WTO, a Geneva-based trade body, has to be by consensus — meaning that any single country could hold up any waiver.
Greens spokeswoman for international aid, Mehreen Faruqi, called on Australia to follow suit on Thursday.
"We are one of the hold-outs and it’s morally indefensible," she tweeted.
Rich countries implored to join US move
Among the holdouts is the European Union. The EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the 27-nation bloc was ready to talk about the US proposal — but cagily remained noncommittal for now.
“We are ready to discuss how the US proposal for waiver on intellectual property protection for Covid vaccines could help end the crisis," she said in a video address.
“In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains.”
That echoed the position of the global pharmaceutical industry, which insists a faster solution would be for rich countries that have vaccine stockpiles to start sharing them with poorer ones.
Morrison welcomes US announcement
In the wake of the US announcement, New Zealand indicated the country would follow suit.
Australia's position was ostensibly opposed to waiving patent protections and the government has been accused of delaying the global push to do so.
However in the wake of the US announcement, Australia's position became less clear.
In a statement to The Guardian on Thursday, Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan stopped short of joining the US but welcomed the move.
“We welcome this positive development and look forward to working with the US and others to find solutions that boost the global rollout of Covid-19 vaccines," he said.
When asked on Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison called it "tremendous news" but also did not articulate definitive support for the position.
Pharmaceutical industry pushes back: 'The wrong answer'
The industry, meanwhile, insists that production of coronavirus vaccines is complicated and can’t be ramped up by easing intellectual property protections. Instead, it insists that reducing bottlenecks in supply chains and a scarcity of ingredients that go into vaccines are the more pressing issues for now.
“A waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem,” said the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.
“Waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis.”
The industry also says an IP waiver will do more harm than good in the long run by reducing the incentives that push innovators to make tremendous leaps, as they did with the vaccines that have been churned out in a blistering, unprecedented speed to help fight Covid-19.
But civil society, progressive groups and international institutions were euphoric about the Biden administration’s new stance.
“A waiver of patents for #COVID19 vaccines & medicines could change the game for Africa, unlocking millions more vaccine doses & saving countless lives. We commend the leadership shown by South Africa, India & the United States, & urge others to back them,” WHO Africa chief Matshidiso Moeti tweeted.
Doctors Without Borders, an advocacy group also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres that sends health workers to countries in need, said many low-income countries where it operates have only received 0.3% of the global supply of coronavirus vaccines.
“MSF applauds the US government’s bold decision to support the waiving of intellectual property on COVID-19 vaccines during this time of unprecedented global need,” said Avril Benoît, executive director of MSF-USA.
She said any waiver should apply not just to vaccines, but other medical tools for Covid-19, including treatments for infected people and testing systems.
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