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Postponed WTO Meeting Reveals WTO Failure

Postponed WTO meeting reveals WTO failure: civil society groups urge Trade Minister to support the waiver on vaccine monopolies in on-line discussions

An alliance of health, human rights, fair-trade and labour rights advocates have warned Trade Minister Dan Tehan that global efforts to lift COVID-19 vaccine patent monopolies would be undermined by a draft statement that Australia sponsored before the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial Meeting which was due to meet this week.

The meeting has now been postponed indefinitely because the new Omicron strain of the COVID-19 virus in African countries with low vaccination rates prevents many African and other delegations from attending the meeting.

The new strain of the virus is a direct result of vaccination rates below 5% in African low-income countries, where millions are dying and new strains are developing.

The postponement of the WTO Ministerial Meeting exposes the failure of the WTO for over a year to agree to waive WTO rules, share vaccine knowledge and increase global vaccine production to ensure access in low-income countries.

The statement signed by Australia, entitled “COVID-19 and beyond: trade and health”, seeks to provide a WTO response to the COVID-19 pandemic and future pandemics. But the statement does not include the proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property monopolies over life-saving vaccines and other COVID products (the ‘TRIPS Waiver’).

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Ministers were due to debate both the TRIPS waiver and the draft statement at the postponed meeting, but discussions and a decision to support the waiver can now be made online.

In a letter to Minister Tehan, advocates express extreme concern’ that Australia has sponsored the draft statement, which is also sponsored by the main opponents who are blocking the waiver on intellectual property monopolies, Germany, the EU, UK, Switzerland, and other governments. The US government, which supports the waiver, did not sponsor the statement.

The advocates warn that “failure to act on the waiver would be a major crisis for the credibility of the WTO as an institution. Instead of acting in solidarity with all of its members, the WTO would be supporting the interests of global pharmaceutical companies at the expense of millions of lives.”

Organisations endorsing the letter, Action Aid Australia, Amnesty International Australia, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET), Friends of the Earth Australia, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Oxfam Australia, SumofUS and Union Aid Abroad APHEDA urge the Minister to “strongly support the TRIPS Waiver to avoid a catastrophic failure.”

Dr Patricia Ranald Convener of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network said: “The postponement of the WTO meeting shows that dangerous new strains continue to develop in countries with low vaccination rates, caused by lack of access to COVID vaccines controlled by a few companies under WTO monopoly rules. Australia should not endorse a WTO statement which ignores the need to waive monopolies and increase global production. Australia and the WTO must use ongoing online discussions to endorse the TRIPs Waiver to demonstrate that they do not value the interests of pharmaceutical companies above millions of lives.”

ACTU President Michele O’Neil said: “The Morrison Government are trying to backtrack on their support for the TRIPS Waiver, once again putting the profits of big pharmaceutical companies ahead of the urgent medical needs of the developing world. We urge the Morrison Government to live up to their commitments and not stand in the way of developing countries’ access to vaccines.”

Ry Atkinson, Campaigner at Amnesty International Australia, said: "More than 100 countries have supported the TRIPS Waiver, yet much like we've seen with the US, the Australian Government is all for the announcement, but lacks any substance. Minister Tehan puts forward arguments that there's no consensus, yet Australia is actively sponsoring alternative proposals that we already know won't solve this crisis and don't come anywhere near a compromise, yet alone even mention intellectual property rights."

Oxfam CEO Lyn Morgain said: “We continue to call on the Australian government to do all it can to support the sharing of the know-how to make vaccines so that everyone, everywhere can have access to these lifesaving technologies. Sponsoring this draft statement is a step in the wrong direction.”

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