“India is literally gasping for oxygen," said Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt, before announcing that the Morrison government will quickly send donations of ventilators, masks, goggles and gloves to the country.
The announcement came as India faces a devastating surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths, with hospitals overrun, oxygen in high demand, and vaccines in short supply. Closer to home, Australia recently donated 8,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines to neighboring Papua New Guinea, which is struggling with its own Covid-19 outbreak and only has 500 doctors and fewer than 4,000 nurses to carry the load.
These donations are helpful but are not an effective long-term strategy to fight Covid-19. What India, Papua New Guinea and many other countries in the developing world need urgently is the ability to make more of their own vaccines, treatments, and testing kits. Right now, Australia is on the wrong side of the global tussle over access to the intellectual property to make Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.
Australia has not supported an Indian and South African proposal at the World Trade Organization that seeks to waive some intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and other medical products. Known as the ‘TRIPS waiver,' since it seeks to adjust terms of the agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the proposal is backed by more than 100 mostly developing countries.
However, a small number of countries are stonewalling the proposal, including the United States, the EU, the UK. Although other factors affect global supply, if this waiver was accepted it would untie the hands of producers everywhere, allowing them to contribute to efforts to massively scale up manufacturing of desperately needed tests, treatments, and vaccines worldwide. Instead of debating about how to ration vaccines better or more equitably, we could be rationing less.
If the TRIPS waiver had been adopted last October when it was proposed, it could already be giving low and middle-income countries like India the ability to expand production of lifesaving medical products. The devastating images coming from India over the past few weeks prove that Australia ignores this at its own peril. In this common goal of ending the worst pandemic in a century, no one is safe until everyone is safe.
Recognizing the unprecedented nature of the crisis we face, Australian scientists and Nobel Laureates Peter Doherty and Elizabeth Blackburn recently joined the chorus demanding support for a TRIPS waiver, echoing former world leaders, US lawmakers, the head of the World Health Organization, faith leaders like Pope Francis, and hundreds of civil society organizations from around the world.
Like many other wealthy countries, Australia prebooked far more doses than it needed to cover its population of 25 million people, placing orders totaling 144 million doses with multiple manufacturers. In the past few weeks, wealthy countries including France, New Zealand, Spain and the US have begun to donate some of these “extra” doses to countries in need of vaccines. The sooner we increase global vaccine supply, the sooner all countries can stop competing against each other for a vaccine supply, and can co-operate and even share.
As a part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the heads of government of the US, Australia, Japan and India announced a joint plan to boost vaccine manufacturing and address delivery gaps in the region. As a part of this effort, in which American vaccines will be manufactured in Indian factories with Japanese financial support, Australia promised $100 million focused on "last mile" distribution in South-East Asia. Unfortunately, in the face of yawning inequities in global access, these kinds of charitable measures won’t be enough.
In Australia, where there is limited community spread of the virus, about 5 percent of the population has been vaccinated, but that ratio drops to 1 in 500 in poorer countries. In many countries around the world even front-line health workers may need to wait months for their shot.
The World Trade Organization meets again in Geneva on this issue on Wednesday.
It is not too late for Australia to change course and finally listen to leading experts and elected representatives, by dropping its opposition to the TRIPS waiver.