Advocates mourn global ‘vaccine apartheid’ illuminated by another COVID variant

By Melissa Coade

November 30, 2021

Karen Andrews
Australian home affairs minister Karen Andrews. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

A number of health and civil society groups will hold a vigil outside the German Consulate in Melbourne at midday to demand support for rules of the World Trade Organization to be changed, enabling vaccine knowledge to be shared so as to protect the world against new COVID threats.

The protestors will don black mourning attire, light candles and be carrying flowers.

Advocates said they will be convening at the German Consulate because Germany (together with the European Union, UK and Switzerland) are acting in the interests of big pharmaceutical companies to block a proposal at the WTO that would waive intellectual property monopolies on COVID vaccines (known as the TRIPS waiver), currently held by a handful of global companies like Pfizer and Moderna. 

“[These companies] control the production and price of vaccines and have sold the majority to high-income countries,” the lobby said in a statement. 

The vigil will remember the millions who have lost their lives because of inaction on vaccine equity. No one is safe until we are all safe.”

The event has been organised by representatives from Public Services International, Action Aid, the Public Health Association of Australia, the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Friends of the Earth, and Union Aid Abroad.

Kate Lappin from Public Services International said Germany and the EU had actively blocked the TRIPS waiver for more than a year.

“In that time health workers across the global south have risked their lives, working unvaccinated, while Big Pharma has raked in record breaking profits. 

“There is clearly something tragically wrong with our trade rules when they prevent us from ending the pandemic as soon as possible,” Lappin said.

The civil society and public health associations want the Australian government to become an official sponsor of the TRIPS proposal, noting that a planned WTO ministerial meeting was postponed this week to deal with the emergence of the Omicron variant. In their view, conversations about dismantling the ‘vaccine apartheid’ that sees wealthier nations better vaccinated than their poorer developing neighbours must continue.

“COVID waiver discussions can continue online and through various councils,” the group said. 

The Public Health Association of Australia’s Deborah Gleeson said that support for the TRIPS waiver was vital for enabling the supply of vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control at a global level. 

“We can’t afford to wait any longer for governments to act,” Gleeson said. 

Addressing a press conference on Tuesday morning, health minister Greg Hunt lauded the health team in South Africa for its vigilance in alerting the international community and responding to the new Omicron variant, which four people in Australia have now been confirmed to be carrying. He recognised that it was a difficult time for South Africa and thanked the government for its assistance in understanding more about the new COVID variant.

“Our overwhelming view is that whilst it’s an emerging variant, it’s a manageable variant,” Hunt said.

“The additional measures that will also occur is that the bubbles that would open with Korean and Japan will be paused for two weeks until December 15. All of this is done on the presumption that we will recommence from December 15 but medical advice will guide us throughout.”

Home affairs minister Karen Andrews said that a national security decision was made on Monday night to also close Australia’s borders to visa holders for 14 days. This was in line with the same response the Australian government took earlier this year in response to the emergence of the Delta variant, which ultimately caused additional prolonged lockdowns across Australia’s major cities, including Sydney and Melbourne.

The minister also thanked the measured response of state and territory governments in dealing with the decision to close Australia’s borders to these groups for a short period.

“We have been very focused on doing all we can to open our international borders as safely as we can,” Andrews said.

“We are acutely aware of the impact that this will have on individuals, families and businesses here in Australia,” she added. 

Chief health officer Professor Paul Kelly said the confirmed Omricon COVID variant cases in Australia either had very mild or no symptoms of disease.

Decisions beyond border closer measures would be considered between Australia’s states and territories, he added. 

“We do know [the variant’s] transmissible. We don’t know about the vaccine effectiveness and we don’t know about [Omcricon’s] severity,” Professor Kelly said.

“South Africa has been extremely open and helpful through what they know — we have organised a meeting with the South African equivalent of the National Medical Health and Research Council, which will happen later in the week [and] 24/7 we are monitoring the situation very actively,” he said. 

“We cannot keep this Omicron out forever in Australia, mostly we do what we can to slow down [the variant’s] introduction.”


Government told COVID vaccine patent waiver threatens global inoculation

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