Australia seeks to ‘unlock’ discussions on global COVID-19 vaccine waiver

There are concerns negotiations around a proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines have stalled, but Australia's trade minister remains hopeful a way forward can be secured to “beat this pandemic”.

Trade Minister Dan Tehan at the G20 Trade and Investment held in Sorrento, Italy.

Trade Minister Dan Tehan during the G20 Trade and Investment held in Sorrento, Italy. Source: Vincenzo Izzo/Sipa USA

Trade Minister Dan Tehan insists he’s confident a proposal to waive intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines can be secured, despite concerns global negotiations have stalled.

Sources last week told Reuters talks were deadlocked and directionless around the proposal that is aimed at helping developing countries produce generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines.

More than 100 countries - including Australia - have expressed support for the proposed temporary waiver initially put forward by India and South Africa. 

Mr Tehan has recently embarked on an extensive international trip for a series of trade talks across the globe including in Indonesia, India, the United Arab Emirates, France and Italy, with Brussels and London to come.

He told SBS News he had spoken with counterparts from India, South Africa as well as the European Union to find a “way forward” during his whirlwind trip.

“We want to see this issue resolved,” he said. 

“I’m confident that we can if everyone is willing to basically give a little bit because the importance of it is so great.”

Australia seeks to ‘unlock’ discussions on COVID-19 vaccine waiver

A major ministerial conference in November-December, which typically provides a rare opportunity for new trade deals, now stands as the next crucial meeting to decide the waiver's future.

Mr Tehan said the COVID-19 waiver would be an “absolutely key issue” at the end of year meeting.

“We have to be able to unlock the discussions around the IP waiver, when it comes to vaccines, and we are fully engaged on this and want to see it resolved,” he said.  

He said getting vaccine production and distribution right would be essential to successfully fight the pandemic.

Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio (L) meets with Trade Minister Dan Tehan (R).
Source: ANSA

“That’s how we are going to beat this pandemic,” he said. 

Supporters of the vaccine waiver argue it would make it easier for low and middle-income countries to manufacture generic versions of the vaccines.

This hinges on concerns rich nations continue to amass vaccines, including for booster shots, while low-income nations trail behind in the global rollout.

Official data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows less than 4 per cent of people in low-income countries have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine, compared to almost 61 per cent in high-income countries. 

There are also fears that a global vaccine sharing initiative known as the COVAX Facility is on track to fall almost 1 billion short of its updated vaccine target of 1.4 billion doses this year.

A health worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine in Nigeria.
Source: Universal Images Group Editorial

The United States threw its weight behind the proposal in May, raising expectations of a breakthrough that has so far failed to materialise.

But some countries remain unconvinced, including powerful EU member states such as Germany. 

Sources have told Reuters that opponents of the measure are concerned it is not clear that a waiver would help remove barriers to vaccine equity, such as raw material scarcity and supply chain issues.

The WHO wants to see up to 70 per cent of the world’s population vaccinated by mid-2022. 

The targets are considered crucial milestones towards limiting the disease burden and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that has continued to wreak havoc across the globe. 

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has identified solutions to vaccine inequity as a priority for the global trade body, which has been facing questions recently about its relevance. 

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also described the disparity of vaccine supply as an "obscenity" and "moral indictment".

Published 13 October 2021 at 11:46am
By Anna Henderson, Tom Stayner
Source: SBS News