Australia Australia accused of putting drug company profits for coronavirus vaccines ahead of lives in the developing world

01:40  16 april  2021
01:40  16 april  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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Wealthy nations, including Australia, have been accused of prioritising the profits of big drug companies over the lives of millions of people in the developing world who are struggling to stave off the ravages of the coronavirus.

urging him to support a proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property rights for life-saving vaccines, insisting Australians will not be safe until the whole world is vaccinated.

"COVID-19 is not over for anyone until it is over for everyone," said Arunn Jegan, advocacy coordinator at MSF Australia.

"The most significant threat Australia faces to future control of COVID-19 is the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants that are more transmissible and resistant to vaccines.

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"The only way to prevent this is through effective access to vaccines in all countries."

The World Health Organization claims almost one-in-four people in high-income countries have now received a vaccine, compared to one in more than 500 in the developing world.

"There remains a shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines," said WHO chief Tedros Adhanonom Ghebreyesus this week.

The imbalance has the potential to present a major problem for the world, including countries where the vaccine is widely available, because, regardless of where it occurs, any significant outbreak of COVID-19 increases the likelihood that vaccine-resistant strains of the virus will spread around the world.

"We're likely to see variants emerging in parts of the world where transmission is uncontrolled, that then threaten the progress of stamping out the virus across the world," said Deborah Gleeson, an associate professor in the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University who signed the open letter.

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She said Australia was among the countries prioritising profits over the world's ability to crush COVID-19.

"I think we are at the moment," Associate Professor Gleeson told PM on ABC radio.

"We can't just leave this to the pharmaceutical industry to sort out. We're 15 months into the pandemic now and we [still] haven't seen widespread production of vaccines across the world."

This week, researchers presented evidence to suggest Brazil's P1 coronavirus variant is already mutating in ways that could make it better able to evade antibodies.

Scientists from the public health institute Fiocruz claimed the changes could make the virus more resistant to vaccines, with potentially grave implications for the severity of the outbreak in Latin America's most populous nation.

Last week, Brazil recorded more than 4,000 deaths in a 24-hour period.

Those signing the open letter to Mr Morrison fear that, with so many people currently infected in Brazil and other hotspots closer to home, further mutations are inevitable, which could eventually breach Australia's vaccine defences.

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"This applies to countries like Papua New Guinea for example, which is experiencing a major outbreak at the moment," Dr Gleeson said.

She claims the best way to make vaccines widely available around the world is to encourage drug companies to release their intellectual property.

Last November, India and South Africa put a proposal, known as a TRIPS waiver, to the World Trade Organization (WTO), calling for the suspension of rights for patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information relating to the research, development and production of medical products to combat COVID-19.

Since then, more than 100 of the WTO's 164 member nations have backed the proposal.

But the US, UK, Canada, Japan and Australia, along with a handful of other wealthy nations, opposed it, claiming a ban would stifle innovation.

The open letter calls on the Australian government to support the temporary removal of legal barriers at the next TRIPS council meeting of the WTO on 30th April.

"The TRIPS waiver is critical to effectively addressing COVID-19 and while it has seen significant support from health professionals and communities, it has continued to be blocked by the Australian government," the letter states.

Drug companies claim they have already been involved in an unprecedented level of collaboration, including between rival companies, to ensure maximum protection from COVID-19 around the world.

But they also stand to gain record profits as they sell their vaccine products around the world.

Pfizer, which is providing 40 million doses of vaccine to Australia, is predicting $US15 billion ($19.4 billion) in revenue this year from the vaccine.

"Allowing a single corporation to have monopoly control over key health tools in a pandemic is both unjustified and counterproductive," said Mr Jegan.

"The choice is ours and it is easy. Choose to save lives over profits."

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